10/10/2002 12:00AM

Pleasantly Perfect: Does he have the class?


ARCADIA, Calif. - A little arithmetic, combined with some common sense, goes a long way. Horseplayers who understand and interpret objective standards make decisions based on reason. It is the right way.

Want to know how fast a horse has run? Speed figures are both comprehensible and easily interpreted. Pleasantly Perfect earned a 116 Beyer Speed Figure winning the Goodwood Handicap on Sunday, the highest figure earned this fall by a Breeders' Cup Classic candidate. That is good.

Based on his recent pattern of improvement, Pleasantly Perfect will arrive in Chicago as one of the leading American-based Classic contenders. In three starts from August through October, Pleasantly Perfect's figures have soared - 101 in a N2X allowance, 112 in the Pacific Classic, 116 in the Goodwood.

A bettor might accurately deduce that Pleasantly Perfect, a late-developing son of Pleasant Colony, has reached a new level of ability. There is no counter-argument. Pleasantly Perfect is running faster now, in autumn, than he did in summer. He is peaking at the right time. Beyond technical measures of his Goodwood victory, published descriptions of the race have been accurate, even if moderate in praise.

But why hold back? Pleasantly Perfect's devastating triumph Sunday was the most impressive of the eight Breeders' Cup prep races held opening week of Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita. Pleasantly Perfect ran huge, like a potential champion. He had seven rivals in front of him when he entered the far turn, swooped three wide and picked off horses with every stride, entering the stretch with a full head of steam.

From the quarter pole home, Pleasantly Perfect looked like a Grade 1 horse. He lowered his head, ran past his rivals like they were standing still, powered home full stride, and won the nine-furlong race going away in a blazing 1:46.80. No one else had a chance. Can Pleasantly Perfect stay 1 1/4 miles? Bring it on. The farther the race, the better his chances.

All this has become patently obvious. Already, some have declared Pleasantly Perfect to be America's best hope to win the Classic. Yet one wonders if the pronouncement was impulsive. Or, is every accolade fully deserved? Based on the final time of the Goodwood, combined with Pleasantly Perfect's improving pattern and his long-distance and late-maturing pedigree, the argument may be legitimate.

Pleasantly Perfect could win the Breeders' Cup Classic. He is almost fast enough, with room to improve. His form cycle remains on an upward trajectory, he is bred for the 1 1/4-mile distance, and will benefit from an abundance of speed likely to be entered in the race. These discernible attributes are vital.

And yet, Pleasantly Perfect will enter the Breeders' Cup Classic with one glaring flaw - "class." It cannot be measured, is impossible to gauge, and open to debate. It may be the most esoteric of all handicapping principles, yet remains one of the most important in addressing qualifications of starters in a Grade 1 race.

Class is a difficult concept to grasp. There are no figures on which to base an assessment, only subjective criteria. This much is clear - until last Sunday afternoon, Pleasantly Perfect had never hit the board in a graded stakes. By Monday morning, he was considered a leading candidate to win the richest Grade 1 in America. Does Pleasantly Perfect have enough class to win the Breeders' Cup Classic? What is class, after all?

One school of thought holds that class is speed. A fast horse is a good horse. The simple approach has merit, perhaps more so in sprints and races for young horses. Sufficient raw ability can allow a fast horse to simply run away from the competition. But on turf and in long-distance races at upper levels, class tells.

A horse with class overcomes adversity. He is consistent. He looks rivals in the eye, and pushes onward. He may not win every race against top company, but he is regularly competitive. Horses with class are more accomplished than one-hit wonders.

There is every reason to believe Pleasantly Perfect has many more big races in front of him. He already has two behind him; the Goodwood might have been his second stakes win had he not been unlucky Aug. 25 in the Pacific Classic. In that race, he was crowded at the start, lost position, fanned five wide on the far turn, and still tried to finish. He ran very well. He did not overcome adversity.

Pleasantly Perfect caught every break in the Goodwood. The field was relatively weak, the favorite did not fire, the pace was fast, and Pleasantly Perfect stayed clear of traffic. In a booming triumph, he earned a right to aim even higher in Chicago.

Sensible handicappers will recognize Pleasantly Perfect's obvious attributes when handicapping the BC Classic. He is a good horse, getting better.

But Pleasantly Perfect enters the Classic with ambiguous credentials regarding class. It is a crucial imperfection, and one that handicappers should consider carefully before wagering on a good horse in a great race.