01/29/2004 1:00AM

Pleasantly Perfect out to gain some respect

Pleasantly Perfect is out to prove that last year's Breeders' Cup Classic win is no fluke.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Over the next two months, owner Gerald Ford and trainer Richard Mandella are out to prove that Pleasantly Perfect's victory in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic was not a fluke. begins his season in Saturday's $250,000 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita, and a win or a strong placing would move him closer to starting in two important races in March - the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 6 and the $6 million Dubai World Cup in the Middle East on March 27.

"That's a full plate," Ford said.

Success in coming races would greatly enhance Pleasantly Perfect's reputation, proving that he can run well in a lengthy campaign against top older horses and perhaps dispelling the theory that he won the BC Classic because of the absence of eventual Horse of the Year Mineshaft and top 3-year-old Empire Maker.

Pleasantly Perfect's ascent to the top of the nation's handicap ranks did not come smoothly. His injuries and ailments sound more like the problems of an entire stable, not a single horse. At times, it seemed impossible that Pleasantly Perfect would become a multiple stakes winner and a multimillionaire.

First, Pleasantly Perfect's career was delayed for a year by a virus that enlarged his heart. He made his first start in May 2001 as a 3-year-old and was eased. He did not start again until early 2002, and won his maiden in his fourth career start.

Pleasantly Perfect rose to prominence in the second half of 2002 and won his first stakes in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap, but he was kept out of the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington Park because he had bled twice in a year and was in violation of Illinois rules for bleeders.

Last year, Pleasantly Perfect seemed poised to be a handicap star, but missed six months because of an ankle injury. When he returned, he defended his title in the Goodwood and pulled an upset in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

Nothing adverse has happened to Pleasantly Perfect in the three months since that race, leaving Ford and Mandella to hope that the disappointments are behind the 6-year-old.

"It's easy now," Mandella said.

Despite Pleasantly Perfect's accomplishments, Eclipse Award voters did not include him as a finalist for the year's top older horse, preferring Congaree, Medaglia d'Oro, and Mineshaft.

"That would have been a nice accolade," said Ford, who lives in Dallas.

The lack of respect accorded to Pleasantly Perfect for his victory in the Breeders' Cup does not set as well with Mandella, particularly since the horse won by 1 1/4 lengths over Medaglia d'Oro and finished 1 1/4 miles in a sharp 1:59.88.

"You'd think he won the race in 2:02, someone fell down and he won," Mandella said. "There was a Whitney winner in there, a Travers winner, and a Kentucky Derby winner.

"To come back and win the Goodwood and win the Breeders' Cup, a lot of horses would have bounced off the Goodwood."

After Pleasantly Perfect won the 2002 Goodwood, he seemed to be a top contender for the BC Classic at Arlington Park. But Pleasantly Perfect bled in the Goodwood and in a workout earlier in the year, and was therefore prohibited by Illinois rules from starting for 30 days. Only 18 days separated the Goodwood and the BC Classic.

Under California rules, Pleasantly Perfect would have been allowed to start.

Mandella was philosophical about missing the 2002 BC Classic.

"It could have been the best thing for him," he said. "If I'd breezed him and he had a hint of blood, I wouldn't have run him. But we should have uniform rules, for the horses and the bettors. It's silly to have different rules."

The San Antonio was also the start of Pleasantly Perfect's 2003 campaign. After finishing third to Congaree, the likely favorite again on Saturday, Pleasantly Perfect was well regarded for the Santa Anita Handicap, but finished fourth.

"He came back all stoved up," Mandella said, using a horseman's term for soreness. "It took awhile to get him to get over it."

Starts in the Californian and Hollywood Gold Cup were abandoned, as was the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. But the change of scenery when the stable moved to Del Mar, and additional time, led to improvement for Pleasantly Perfect.

"By the time we got to Del Mar, he was sound," Mandella said. "He'd been galloping and got good."

Pleasantly Perfect won the Goodwood on Oct. 4 by a half-length and followed that three weeks later with the upset in the BC Classic. In a month, he had gone from a horse with a past plagued by injury and illness to a leader in the handicap division.

As Pleasantly Perfect's campaign resumes this weekend, Mandella thinks he may have a horse who can give him his third win in the Santa Anita Handicap or his first in the Dubai World Cup.

"He's big and fresh and lightly raced," he said. "He's never trained better."