01/31/2003 12:00AM

Racing's early-season shamrock. Usually.


ARCADIA, Calif. - The San Antonio Handicap is always a race worth winning. Success tends to indicate greater things to come - if they haven't already happened.

Sore old Seabiscuit was near the end of the line when he won the San Antonio in 1940, but he was dazzling that day, defeating his stablemate Kayak.

Round Table, an all-purpose champion, was at the dawn of his Horse of the Year season when he beat Porterhouse, Terrang, and Find in 1958. He ran 17 more times that year.

In winning the 1971 San Antonio, Ack Ack was just warming up. He went on to take his next four starts, including the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup, while earning the first Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year.

In many ways, the nine-furlong San Antonio kicks off the serious part of the season's handicap competition. The San Pasqual is a nice little race, but it's only 1 1/16 miles. Only the best make the leap to nine and 10 furlongs. That's where the real money is stashed.

Over the last three decades, Prince Dantan, Vigors, Bates Motel, Lord at War, Farma Way, and Free House have gone from a win in the San Antonio to victory in the Santa Anita Handicap. Winning the San Antonio usually means luck is on your side, the stars are kindly aligned, and good fortune will follow - unless you happen to be Redattore.

The winner of the 2002 San Antonio Handicap is a poster boy for the best intentions gone wrong. WorldCom had a better season. As impressive as Redattore was in his San Antonio win, winning in a field that included Euchre and Lido Palace, little did anyone know that nothing but bad karma would follow.

The San Antonio victory got trainer Richard Mandella thinking about the Dubai World Cup for Redattore, but then the horse came up with a quarter crack, and that was that. Strike one.

Three months later, Redattore was back in action with a solid second-place finish in the Inglewood Handicap on the Hollywood Park grass. Once again, Mandella made grand plans, this time for the Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park on Memorial Day. Redattore was dispatched to Ontario International Airport for the flight to New York, but the plane had mechanical trouble and never arrived. When Mandella was told he could send Redattore to the airport the next day, the trainer politely declined.

"Fool me once, shame on you," Mandella said. "Fool me twice, shame on me. Although maybe I should have gone back that second time. Swept Overboard did, and he won the race."

Strike two could have been softened in the Shoemaker Mile, run at Hollywood the same day as the Met. No joy, though. Redattore finished second to Ladies Din.

The real blow came during the summer at Del Mar. Redattore was primed to win the Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs. Even the plane arrived and departed for Seattle on time. The horse settled in like a champ - then woke up the following day with a leg up on low-grade pneumonia. Strike three and out.

"He got just sick enough that you could see some filling on the X-ray of his lungs," Mandella recalled. "We left him there about 10 days - you don't want to put them through another plane ride right away when they've got something like that - and then we sent him to the farm to rest up."

In the meantime, Pleasantly Perfect emerged as Mandella's best older dirt horse. He still is. It will be Pleasantly Perfect defending for the Mandella team on Sunday, when the San Antonio is run for the 65th time. In addition to Redattore's, four of those have been won by Mandella runners, beginning with Poley in 1984 and including Best Pal in 1995 and Gentlemen in 1997 and 1998.

In his last start, Pleasantly Perfect was an impressive winner of the Goodwood Handicap during the 2002 Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita. The performance put the big colt on a lot of short lists to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Then it was learned that he would not be eligible to run at Arlington because of an Illinois racing rule that restricts two-time bleeders. Pleasantly Perfect originally qualified for Lasix by scoping positive, then, after the Goodwood, he was observed by the official veterinarian to have bled from the nostrils.

"It turned 100 degrees the day of the Goodwood, and he ran out of his mind," Mandella said. "I think he just burst a blood vessel, because he sure didn't run like a horse who was bleeding. Since we couldn't run him in Chicago, we took the opportunity to give him a little time off."

And Redattore? Certainly he has been kidnapped by pirates by now, or fallen down a mine shaft.

"He's ready to run," Mandella said. "I'm just looking for a place to run him."

He makes it sound so simple.