01/29/2003 1:00AM

Pleasantly Perfect starting over


ARCADIA, Calif. - Pleasantly Perfect, the winner of the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap last October, launches a campaign on Sunday that may lead to the other side of the world and back again in a quest for the Horse of the Year title.

Unraced since winning the Goodwood, Pleasantly Perfect returns in Sunday's $300,000 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita, a race that will draw top handicap horse Congaree.

For many years, the San Antonio has been a logical prep for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, which will be run on March 1. But since 1996, the race has also served as a stepping-stone to the $6 million Dubai World Cup, which will be run in the Middle East on March 29.

At this point, trainer Richard Mandella is more inclined to point for the Dubai race.

"We're hoping he runs well on Sunday, and we have a lot of worrying about which way to go," he said.

Owned by Gerald Ford's Diamond A Racing, Pleasantly Perfect is expected to be a leading player in the handicap division this year. His victory in the Goodwood seemed to be an ideal prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington Park in Illinois last October, but he was forced to miss the race after he was held to be in violation of Illinois rules for bleeders.

Pleasantly Perfect bled in the Goodwood and before a maiden race last February. Illinois rules require that horses who bleed twice within one year cannot start for 30 days from the second occurrence. There was only 20 days between the Goodwood and the Breeders' Cup Classic, so instead of starting in the $4 million Classic, the richest race in the United States, Pleasantly Perfect received a vacation.

"I sent him out to clear his head for three weeks," Mandella said. "It was probably what I would have ended up doing anyway. We weren't going to abuse the horse. It forced me to make sure I did the right thing.

"He went through a lot last year. He was a maiden a year ago, went through his conditions, and ended up a big stakes winner. He deserved a little break."

The difference in the rules between two states still bothers Mandella. This year, the Breeders' Cup is being run in California, whose rules differ from those of Illinois. In California, the two-time bleeder provision states that a horse cannot start for 14 days.

Mandella is part of a nationwide committee that meets periodically to discuss the unification of medication rules.

"It was an example of what the industry needs to correct its different rules in different states," he said. "There shouldn't be a lot of difference."

With Congaree in the San Antonio field, it may be difficult for Pleasantly Perfect to win his comeback. Congaree was an impressive winner of the Cigar Mile and San Pasqual handicaps in his last two starts and can lead or rate near the leaders.

Conversely, Pleasantly Perfect is a closer.

"I still think he's improving," Mandella said. "I don't know if he's up to running a race as good as he did at Oak Tree, but he's training great. We scoped him in his last five works and he hasn't bled."

A win or a close finish could lead to a trip to the Dubai World Cup, a race Mandella desperately wants to win. Even the threat of armed conflict in the Middle East has not deterred Mandella.

"I'm willing to fight if I had to," Mandella said. "I'll go right from the back of the hotel on my jet ski with guns in each hand and ammo in my teeth. I'll look like John Wayne in 'True Grit.' "

A compact San Antonio

Congaree will be favored in a small field in the San Antonio, which is run over 1 1/8 miles. Aside from Pleasantly Perfect, the other probables are Milwaukee Brew and Piensa Sonando.

Milwaukee Brew won the Santa Anita Handicap last spring and is using the San Antonio as a prep. Piensa Sonando won the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park in December, but was only fourth in the San Pasqual Handicap behind Congaree.

Kudos, the San Pasqual runner-up, is being held out for the Santa Anita Handicap, while the third-place finisher from the San Pasqual, Hot Market, is sidelined with an injury.

Sligo Bay, the winner of the Hollywood Turf Cup in late November, was considered a candidate for the San Antonio, but trainer Beau Greely said the turf horse will be trained up to the Santa Anita Handicap, which will be his main track debut.

Medaglia d'Oro scares 'em away from Strub

There are two stakes on Saturday - the $400,000 Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds and the $150,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs.

The presence of Medaglia d'Oro, the winner of the Travers Stakes and the runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Classic, will ensure a small field in the Strub, which is run over 1 1/8 miles. The other probables are Pass Rush, the winner of the San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes on Jan. 11, as well as Castle Gandolfo, Easy Grades, Olmodavor, and Tracemark.

The San Vicente Stakes will be the stakes debut of Runnin' on Nitro and Southern Image, both impressive maiden winners in December. Kafwain, the runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, will be favored. Mr. Technique, Only the Best, and Sum Trick will also start.

Grey Memo may return to Dubai

Grey Memo, who finished third in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park last weekend, may travel to Dubai later this spring.

Trainer Warren Stute said he would like to take Grey Memo back to Dubai for a defense of his victory in last year's Godolphin Mile on dirt. He said an upcoming meeting with the three-person partnership that owns Grey Memo will determine his direction.

The potential of war in the region is not a concern, he said.

"We'll have a board of directors meeting," Stute said. "Even if there is a war, I want to go," he said. "I hope they invite me."