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'Image, Reality Merge in Big 'Cap

Taking advantage of Pleasantly Perfect's absence, Southern Image grabs favorite's role and runs with it in victory at Santa Anita.

March 07, 2004|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

In the days and weeks after Southern Image went from being just a stakes-placed horse to a Grade I winner this winter at Santa Anita, trainer Richard Mandella noticed something strange during morning training hours.

"When [trainer Mike Machowsky] brings his horse to the track, he seems to bring him past me every time," Mandella kidded a few days ago.

Machowsky was not intentionally thrusting his horse into his former mentor's face. The two horsemen are still friends, Machowsky's having worked as an assistant for Mandella for five years in the late 1980s. But Saturday's $1-million Santa Anita Handicap brought them head to head, at 12 furlongs. Mandella was without his most lethal weapon, favored Pleasantly Perfect having been scratched after running a 102-degree fever on Friday, but there remained a pupil-vs.-teacher motif of sorts. Mandella ran another horse, Olmodavor, against Southern Image, who was now fitted with the favorite's cloak.

That part of the 67th Big 'Cap was no contest. For that matter, the entire race was no contest. Tactically, the race didn't materialize the way Machowsky had hoped, but Southern Image still cranked out a 1 1/4-length win before a crowd of 27,653. Island Fashion, while unable to become the first filly or mare to win the Big 'Cap, still finished second, leaving her trainer, Marcelo Polanco, with a glass that he saw as half-full. Saint Buddy finished third and Olmodavor, high weight at 119 pounds, a pound less than Southern Image, ran fourth.

"I really wanted to run against [Pleasantly Perfect]," said the 38-year-old Machowsky, who registered his first Grade I win when Southern Image won the Malibu on Dec. 26. "That was a tough blow, and I felt sorry for Dick. But there will still be a question in my mind whether we could have beat him. I would have liked to have found out more about where I am with my horse. If we had gotten the same trip, I don't know if we could have beat him. He's a pretty darn good horse."

So is Southern Image, who paid $4, ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:01 3/5 and earned $600,000 for his many owners, who taxed the winner's circle's capacity with their friends. The 4-year-old gray colt, bought as an unraced 2-year-old for $300,000, races for Don Blahut; the Kagele brothers, Tom and Jerry; and Renee, Angie and Josh Tepper. This partnership has won an unprecedented pair of $1-million races at the meet, Southern Image having prepped for the Big 'Cap with a win in the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 24.

Southern Image might be the least experienced horse to win the Big 'Cap. Saturday marked only his sixth start. The average number of starts for the rest of the field was 14. Southern Image has recorded five wins and a third, and rung up purses totaling more than $1.3 million, most of it this winter.

"He's a big-hearted horse, and he's all about running," said jockey Victor Espinoza, like Machowsky a Big 'Cap winner for the first time. "He feels and looks like all of the big horses I've been riding. Horses like War Emblem [his 2002 Kentucky Derby winner], who don't want to get beat."

Caught along the rail, while Toccet and Royal Place battled for the lead outside him, Espinoza moved Southern Image to the front approaching the far turn.

At the top of the stretch, Southern Image was 1 1/2 lengths to the good, with only Island Fashion to beat. No one behind them was coming with any conviction.

"Coming for home, I thought I had them," said Kent Desormeaux, who rode Island Fashion. "I was riding with confidence even at the quarter pole. Unfortunately, the winner held me at bay, but there's no love lost for my filly. I think she's the best filly in the world, and I wouldn't doubt that she will run [against males again]."

Espinoza said that he was forced into moving prematurely.

"I didn't have a choice," he said. "I was on the inside, and if I didn't let him go, I would have gotten stuck."

Machowsky, whose stable is at Santa Anita, pulled out all the stops in readying Southern Image for Saturday. On Feb. 21, he had scheduled a seven-furlong workout for his horse, but the Santa Anita track, hard-hit by rain, was a mess. Pulling an audible, Machowsky called Dennis Moore, the track superintendent at Hollywood Park.

"He told me that the track across town was in good shape," Machowsky said. "So we put the horse in a van and worked him over there."

Southern Image worked seventh-eighths of a mile in 1:22 3/5. He followed that up with a quick :58 3/5 five-furlong workout a week ago today.

"It was hard for him all the way," Machowsky of Saturday's race. "He never got a breather. Everybody was shooting for us, and Victor had to use him more earlier than he wanted. It was not the ideal trip, but he overcame it with his ability."

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* SOUTHERN IMAGE forced or stalked the pace inside, took the lead into the second turn, inched away leaving that turn and held on gamely under urging.

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