From forgotten prospect to the doorstep of greatness, Pleasantly Perfect leads the field as the 6-5 morning favorite in Saturday's 67th running of the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I). As a 2-year-old Pleasantly Perfect suffered from a heart virus that might have ended his career before it began. A year ago, as a 5-year-old, he had only one stakes victory on his resume when he ran fourth in the 2003 Big 'Cap. But in the past six months he has come alive, winning three stakes, including a career-making victory in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Oct. 25 at Santa Anita."Little by little he developed into the good horse that he is," said trainer Richard Mandella, who is looking to win his third Santa Anita Handicap. "But it took a long time to get him over the sickness, and a long time to get the confidence that he didn't have it anymore. And I think what we see now is just a result of all that."Pleasantly Perfect drew the No. 5 post, right in the middle of the nine-horse field and will carry 123 pounds, four more than any other horse. Southern Image, trained by Mike Machowsky, a Mandella protégé, is the 5-2 second choice on the morning line and may prove Pleasantly Perfect's stiffest competition. Southern Image schooled in the gate Thursday and galloped 1 3/8 miles. "He was a bear today," the trainer said. "Everything's good."Southern Image already has one million-dollar race to his credit at the current Santa Anita meet. He won the Sunshine Millions Classic Jan. 24, and a victory in the Big 'Cap would make him the first to win two million-dollar races during the same Santa Anita meeting. The filly Island Fashion is the wild card. After winning back-to-back grade I stakes races, her connections passed on the recent Santa Maria Handicap, looking for a bigger spotlight. She certainly found it in the Big 'Cap. She will be running for the first time against males, and will attempt to succeed where 40 other females have failed. She will be the first filly to run in the race since Serena's Song in 1996.
Buddy Gil is winless in three starts since capturing the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) last April, but trainer Jeff Mullins cautions not to discount the 4-year-old gelding's chances in Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.
"If anybody paid any attention to his races, he's not really under the radar screen," Mullins said. "It's hard for me to judge where the horse is because he's had two terrible races. The last race was horrendous."
Mullins was referring to the roughly run Strub Stakes (gr. II), in which Buddy Gil "pulled and steadied" before finishing 10th of 11, beaten only 5 ¼ lengths. Prior to the Strub on Feb. 7, Buddy Gil was ninth of 12 in the Malibu Stakes (gr. I) at seven furlongs.
"None of the horses (in the Strub) was as troubled as he was," Mullins said of Buddy Gil, who was voted Horse of the Meet in last year's media poll. "We're just going to consider the Santa Anita Handicap as his first start of the year."Buddy Gil breezed four furlongs in :47 1/5 Wednesday.Mandella, who also trains third morning line choice Olmodavor (6-1), is seeking his third Santa Anita Handicap victory. Olmodavor won the Whirlaway Handicap (gr. III) at Fair Grounds on Feb. 1.San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II) winner Star Cross, 12-1 on the morning line, needs favorable conditions to upset Pleasantly Perfect, according to trainer Darrell Vienna."He needs to run the last turn and not be wide on the first turn," Vienna said. "He's been losing ground on both turns. He's been losing ground on the far turn through no fault but his own. He always tends to stop running about halfway around the turn and then start up again."Another thing I think will help him now is there's more pace. He was on the lead last time (in the San Antonio Handicap). And I think he has to come up with the best effort of his life and Pleasantly Perfect has to be a little bit sub par."The Big 'Cap will be telecast from 4 to 5 p.m. on "HRTV Live" from Santa Anita on KDOC-TV.$1 million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I, 10 race, 4:42 p.m. PST), 4 & up, 1 1/4 mile
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey, ML Odds
1. Saint Buddy, Tyler Baze, 111, 15-1
2. Southern Image, Victor Espinoza, 118, 5-2
3. Royal Place, Jose Valdivia Jr., 111, 30-1
4. Island Fashion, Kent Desormeaux, 115, 10-1
5. Pleasantly Perfect, Alex Solis, 123, 6-5
6. Star Cross, Corey Nakatani, 114, 12-1
7. Toccet, Emile Ramsammy, 113, 20-1
8. Olmodavor, Mike Smith, 119, 6-1
9. Buddy Gil, Gary Stevens, 117, 12-1