Southern Image proves mettle in Pimlico Special

Stretch run puts winner in fast older company with 5th victory in row

May 15, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

It was the athlete in Southern Image that persuaded California trainer Mike Machowsky to splurge at a Florida auction of 2-year-olds in 2002.

And it was a gritty stretch run at Pimlico Race Course that verified Machowsky's initial judgment and pushed Southern Image into elite company among the country's older horses yesterday.

The 4-year-old son of Halo's Image stalked front-runner Midway Road around the track and passed him halfway through the stretch to win the $500,000 Pimlico Special before a crowd of 24,471.

This was strictly a two-horse race after early favorite Funny Cide withdrew because of respiratory problems and post-time favorite Dynever (3-2) failed to fire. The victory was Southern Image's sixth in seven career starts, but first outside California.

With or without Funny Cide, Machowsky figured it was his race to win. He admitted, however, that it would have been sweeter had last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner been able to run.

"Yeah, I wanted to run against him," Machowsky said. "I'm friends with Barclay [Tagg, Funny Cide's trainer]. He shipped his horse to my barn for the Belmont last year. I said all week if I got beat here, I wanted him to beat me."

Southern Image had not raced as a 2-year-old when Machowsky paid $300,000 for him at auction in Florida. He wanted the horse so desperately that he overshot a $200,000 limit for his ownership conglomerate.

"I put my neck on the line," said Machowsky, a self-described bargain hunter. "You can get all that pedigree, but I'm in the business of training horses. You need to buy horses who can run, and I always preach athletes when I'm buying horses."

The ownership group may have swallowed hard at the original purchase, but not lately. Southern Image not only has won five straight races, but also has won $1 million races in his previous two outings (Sunshine Millions Classic and Santa Anita Handicap).

Counting $300,000 for yesterday's victory, Southern Image has earned $1.68 million with six wins in seven career starts.

"We were all cognizant this was the best field he was going to face, or had faced," said Allen Tepper, a Philadelphian who also lives in Del Mar, Calif., and is one of seven owners. "We knew the horse was well-prepared, and he gave great effort."

Other owners include breeder Don Blahut, brothers Tom and Jerry Kagele, and Tepper's family - wife Renee, son Josh and daughter-in-law Angie.

Machowksy was so confident coming into the race that he had little to say to jockey Victor Espinoza.

"I just told him to ride with confidence," the trainer said. "I really wasn't concerned. I was pretty confident."

Southern Image was never more than 2 1/2 lengths behind Midway Road, before a gripping, head-to-head sprint to the finish. Espinoza did not want to shoot for the lead too early, then had to battle to get it.

"That was quite a stretch duel," he said. "I didn't know when we would go by, but I had confidence we would. I thought I had the best horse, and that's why I didn't want to move too soon."

The victory most likely puts Southern Image into the top three among older horses, after Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro.

"I'm looking to take them on," Machowsky said. "And another horse down the road, the horse [Smarty Jones] running [today]. He's a freak of nature. That's the way I feel about my horse."

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