08/18/2004 11:00PM

Pleasantly Perfect: A favorite full of flaws

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DEL MAR, Calif. - At the post position draw for the Pacific Classic, trainer Jeff Mullins addressed the possibility that his gelding Choctaw Nation could upset Pleasantly Perfect a second time.

"Maybe the best horse won't win," Mullins said, "That's what we're hoping for."

Mullins may have his wish granted Sunday at Del Mar, where the Richard Mandella-trained Pleasantly Perfect enters the Pacific Classic as the most accomplished of eight runners. However, Pleasantly Perfect - the Breeders' Cup Classic-Dubai World Cup winner - also enters with serious questions regarding current form, in a 1 1/4-mile race that has been disastrous for favorites.

Only one favorite, Gentlemen in 1997, has won the Pacific Classic. The list of 12 favorites that lost reads like a Hall of Fame ballot and includes Cigar, who had won 16 starts in a row going into the Pacific Classic, and previous Classic winners foiled trying to repeat - General Challenge, Gentlemen, Bertrando, and Best Pal. Breeders' Cup Classic winner Concern and the mare Paseana were among favorites that struggled to hit the board - eight of 13 were out of the money.

A handicapper might reject the history, and chalk it up as mere statistical aberration. After all, 13 years can hardly be considered a long-range study. But Pleasantly Perfect faces other complexities Sunday, which cannot be dismissed as easily as a backdated study of old race charts. Measured by earnings ($6.7 million) and major wins (five graded stakes), there is no doubt Pleasantly Perfect is the best horse in the field.

Trouble is, Pleasantly Perfect will be favored based on heroics from many months ago - a win March 27 in a $6 million race in Dubai, a four-length comeback win Jan. 31, and an overpowering score Oct. 25 in the Breeders' Cup Classic. If Pleasantly Perfect reproduces any of those three performances, the Pacific Classic might be a formality.

But it is not that simple. Pleasantly Perfect's most recent start - typically the most revealing current form - was a disappointing effort three weeks ago in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap. The race was just a prep, but so was the Jan. 31 San Antonio that he won by daylight. Measured against his own high standards, Pleasantly Perfect disappointed in the San Diego. For the first time in five races, he lost ground through the stretch. In front by 1 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole, he lost by three-quarters. His 101 Beyer Speed Figure was his lowest in two years.

If he wins Sunday, Pleasantly Perfect will accomplish something no Pacific Classic winner has done since Missionary Ridge in 1992 - parlay a 101 Beyer into next-start victory. The past 11 Pacific Classic winners earned a Beyer of 106 or higher in their pre-Classic start. So which Pleasantly Perfect will show up - the dominating Grade 1 winner who was the top dirt horse in the world from October through March? Or an aged veteran whose glory days have passed him by?

These are not criticisms, only parimutuel concerns. Pleasantly Perfect's odds will be low, so handicappers must hold him to a stricter standard. It is tough enough to generate consistent profit by wagering on low-odds horses without flaws. It might be impossible to make money by backing favorites whose most recent start produced more questions than answers.

Mandella accepts some responsibility for the comeback defeat. In a workout three days earlier, Pleasantly Perfect smoked three furlongs in 34.60 seconds. In the race, he found himself dueling for the lead after a half-mile. "He was a little fresh that day. Hopefully we've smoothed him out a little bit," Mandella said.

Count on it. It was Mandella who orchestrated Dare and Go's 1996 Pacific Classic upset of Cigar, and whose 1997 winner Gentlemen remains the only winning favorite. Pleasantly Perfect could return to peak form Sunday, and demolish the field in a manner befitting the most accomplished horse in the race. Or not.

Handicapping goes beyond simple recognition of the best horse. When the best horse delivers an ordinary prep, he must be considered vulnerable. In the 2004 Pacific Classic, there are plenty of other options.

Perfect Drift (7-2) arrives from the East in peak form, with successive Beyer Figures of 110 or higher. The wagering dilemma is in backing his trainer, Murray Johnson, who has not won a race this year. Furthermore, horses whose last start was outside California are a combined 1 for 17 in the Pacific Classic. (The lone exception was 1993 winner Bertrando, a local horse who shipped to Monmouth and returned.)

Choctaw Nation (9-2) picks up 10 pounds after a career-high 102 Beyer, and is not fast enough. However, nine of the first 16 winners this meet trained by Jeff Mullins earned lifetime top Beyer Figures, so who can say Choctaw Nation will not follow suit?

Total Impact (6-1) enters without a flaw. He won the Hollywood Gold Cup last out with a 109 Beyer, and has a history of reproducing top efforts. Colonial Colony (8-1) is another shipper whose best races were on wet tracks.

During (12-1) finished third in the San Diego, yet he cannot be easily dismissed. His up-front running style usually plays well; horses with distance limitations frequently outrun their past performances racing 1 1/4 miles at Del Mar. The last 12 Pacific Classic winners were a combined 4 for 36 in 1 1/4-mile races elsewhere.

Night Patrol (20-1) went to his nose at the start of the San Diego, yet remained in contention to the head of the lane. He is not good enough, but he does have speed, and high odds. El Elogiado (30-1) is too slow by Pacific Classic standards, having earned a career-high Beyer of 94.