02/02/2004 1:00AM

You've gotta have heart

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Richard Mandella professes no particular insight regarding the mysteries of the heart. Life's tough enough just coming up with matching socks. Still, when it came to young Pleasantly Perfect's apparently imperfect ticker, the trainer was determined to fathom the cause. He did - that should be obvious by now - and as a result American racing has a ferocious beast with which to contend.

Big-barrelled, deep-chested, long-bodied and fast, the 6-year-old version of Pleasantly Perfect looks like something Cunard would roll out of dry dock in Southampton. His victory in the San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita last Saturday was every bit as visually impressive as his dusting of Medaglia d'Oro and company in the Breeders' Cup Classic last fall.

Racing four wide in a four-horse field, Pleasantly Perfect practically shot out from under Alex Solis on the far turn, engulfed the opposition in a matter of strides and drew away to win with casual authority. Solis had more trouble finding his car keys than winning the first-place pot of $150,000.

It was a significant reversal of the Pleasantly Perfect who showed up for the 2003 San Antonio. Plagued by an incipient foot bruise and attendant body soreness, he was no match for Congaree. This time around it was Congaree who was out of sorts, finishing last of the San Antonio four without a glaring excuse, while Pleasantly Perfect stole the show.

Three years ago, the idea would have been preposterous. While Congaree and the best members of the 1998 foal crop were competing in the classics, Pleasantly Perfect was turning out to be nothing more than a spoiled slacker with a $725,000 price tag who moped around the Mandella stable, basically eating and watching TV.

"He was getting an abnormal response to exercise," said Dr. Rick Arthur, Mandella's attending veterinarian. "He was more exhausted than he should have been for the level of fitness we thought he had. Furthermore, he was not getting an elevation in heart rate commensurate with his degree of exhaustion and exercise. Basically, he was acting like a big, gorgeous dud."

Mandella and Arthur finally dispatched Pleasantly Perfect to the San Luis Rey Equine Equine Hospital. After an EKG, ultrasound, and stress tests were performed, a diagnosis finally took shape.

"It was endomyocarditis," Arthur said. "Basically, an inflammation of the sac of the heart. It is recognized to be subsequent to viral infection - related to the influenza virus - and can occur the same in horses as in people.

"It's not a very common problem," Arthur added, "but you'll hear of it in people when they get a virus. Two or three weeks later they'll think they're well enough to start jogging again, and they'll die of a heart attack. The same thing could have happened to this horse."

Perish the thought. Mandella thanks his lucky stars he stopped cold on Pleasantly Perfect back in early 2001 to search for an answer.

"Good thing I didn't go to the Phar Lap theory, take him out on the sand dunes and make a man out of him," Mandella said, referring to the legendary Australian champion, whose training routine could have buckled a Navy Seal.

Time, accompanied by a low-dose regimen of an anti-inflammatory medication, eventually cleared Pleasantly Perfect of the virus and its symptoms. He returned to serious training, finally becoming a productive member of the stable as a 4-year-old in 2002. Unfortunately, Mandella thinks it took a lot longer to convince the patient he was well.

"We can imagine that kind of thing happening with a lot of horses," Mandella said. "But in his case, there's a lot of fact to the idea. The problem with his heart sac probably caused him to be afraid to exercise when he was young. Might have even scared him. I don't know if it is pain, or what, since I've never experienced it. But even though it cleared up, maybe it took him two years to get over it and believe it was okay to push himself."

Today, Pleasantly Perfect trains and runs like a self-assured professional, fulfilling the promise of his youth. Solis, aboard for his last seven starts, can bear close witness to the transformation.

"It's like he is running with so much more confidence now," Solis said after the San Antonio. "He is almost a different horse."

He will need to be to cope with the challenges ahead. On the domestic front, Pleasantly Perfect needs to win a serious race someplace other than Santa Anita - all four of his stakes wins have been just down the road from his stall. Mandella is plotting a tentative course that would take Pleasantly Perfect from the Santa Anita Handicap on March 6 to the Dubai World Cup on March 27. No horse has ever won both, but the San Antonio was a smooth step in that direction.

"I scoped him out of the race and he didn't even have a speck," Mandella said, referring to Pleasantly Perfect's history of exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage. "He cooled out like he didn't have anything more than a good gallop. He's a very fresh, healthy horse right now."

Fair warning.