02/02/2004 1:00AM

Pleasantly Perfect makes big splash



What other reaction could anyone have had to Pleasantly Perfect's spectacular return in Saturday's San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita?

Pleasantly Perfect certainly gave us several reasons to be impressed with his performance Saturday, from how he made the three months he had been away since his Breeders' Cup Classic upset seem insignificant to the powerful way he drew off to score by four widening lengths. But for me, the most impressive aspect to Pleasantly Perfect's San Antonio was his demonstration of vastly improved positional speed.

The pace in the San Antonio was solid, yet Pleasantly Perfect was always within a couple of lengths of the lead, closer to the pace than he ever had been before. Pleasantly Perfect is still a late runner, an obviously very effective one at that.

But if the dimension that he displayed Saturday is indeed a new addition to his arsenal, then Pleasantly Perfect is on the verge of being an imposing force, for he will no longer be at the mercy of a slow pace, and will be handy enough to make his own racing luck.

On the other side of the coin, Congaree turned in what was probably the worst race of his life in the San Antonio. It wasn't just that he was a distant last of four at 2-5, it was more that you could see he had nothing early on the far turn. Congaree has alternatives. He could focus on sprinting. But, when a good horse with some miles on him like Congaree turns in an inexplicably poor performance in a favorable spot, it usually is a sign of the beginning of the end.

Voter competency test needed

To suggest that some Eclipse Award voters should have their votes taken away is wading in dangerous waters, especially since voting for championships is often an exercise in opinion. Who among us has an opinion so perfect that they can judge that of others?

However, after looking at some of the first-place votes that were cast in the balloting for the 2003 Eclipse Awards, perhaps it is time to have some sort of competency test for all of those who vote in the Eclipse Awards process. That is because some voters' decisions can only be described as incompetent.

There were several first-place votes that made me flinch, but there were three instances in particular that had to offend everyone who takes seriously the voting for annual champions in Thoroughbred racing. First, I would like to meet the one person who decided that Ashado merited being champion 2-year-old filly more than Halfbridled, a vote cast by a person who works for this newspaper. I would like to know if this voter watched the same Breeders' Cup Juvenile that the rest of the world did, the one in which Ashado lost decisively to Halfbridled by 2 1/2 lengths after having a trip that was about eight lengths easier than Halfbridled's.

I would also like to meet the two voters who thought Harmony Lodge deserved to be champion older female. Harmony Lodge is a nice mare, but she is strictly a sprinter. And only one of her victories in 2003 came in a Grade 1 race, which pales in comparison to the four Grade 1's Sightseek won last year, or the three accounted for by Azeri.

Finally, who was the person who determined that Bien Nicole was worthy of the female turf championship? Let's forget about Islington's victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and Six Perfections's victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile, and Heat Haze's four stakes wins, two in Grade 1's, and Tates Creek's two Grade 1 wins. Let's also forget that Bien Nicole was up the track in the Filly and Mare Turf. Apparently, Bien Nicole's victory in the Grade 2 WinStar Galaxy in a field that was at best Grade 3 - Bien Nicole's only graded stakes win on turf in 2003 - was enough in the mind of this voter to make her a champion.

Frightening. Absolutely frightening.

Magna: Good ideas, poor execution

One thing I will say for the people at Magna Entertainment: They do come up with a good idea or two. Where they have trouble is in the execution.

The Sunshine Millions is a prime example. I love the idea of a big race day in the dead of winter involving Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita, the nation's two premier tracks this time of year. The problem is that the event winds up draining talent from prestigious stakes that are well established, and that the event is restricted to California- and Florida-breds.

Another example is the Magna 5, the new pick five wager made up of races at various Magna-owned tracks that debuted on Saturday. I like the idea of a pick five wager with all the races run in about an hour. That is terrific action. But Magna made a mistake - a mistake that it can still rectify - by establishing a $2 minimum for the wager. I strongly believe that a chief reason why handle in the Magna 5 Saturday failed to reach the $500,000 guaranteed pool was because the base wager was $2, and not $1.

The irony is, Magna is the same company that, instead of changing the displayed payouts on some wagers at Santa Anita to a $2 level and bringing them in line with the rest of the nation, lowered the displayed payouts at Gulfstream on exactas, trifectas, superfectas, pick threes, and pick fours to the $1 payouts.