Away since Aug. 2, lightly raced Southern Image motored down the middle of the track to catch 33-1 shot Marino Marini in the final strides for a head victory in Friday's $250,000 Malibu Stakes (gr. I) for 3-year-olds on opening day at Santa Anita.
Ridden by Victor Espinoza for Blahut Stables LLC and Kagele Bros. Inc., and trained by Michael Machowsky, Southern Image scored an upset at 13-1. Even-money favorite Midas Eyes, part of the Bobby Frankel-trained entry with Watchem Smokey, settled for third, a length farther behind.
"He's always been a very talented horse, so I was pretty darn confident today in him," noted the 38-year-old Machowsky, who won his first grade I race. "I just wanted him to get a good trip and didn't want him to screw up just because a lack of experience.
"He's trained like nothing I ever had. He does everything very professional. He has all the talent in the world. We've had some minor setbacks along the way and it's tested our patience a little bit -- not my confidence, but my patience."
The final time for the seven-furlong Malibu was 1:22 3/5 on a fast track.
On-track attendance under clear skies for the opening of Santa Anita's 84-day meet was 28,295. On-track handle accounted for $8.98 million of $15.2 million wagered on the nine-race card nationally.
Espinoza kept Southern Image in a stalking position while third behind Midas Eyes (:22 2/5, :45), fell back a bit on the turn for home and swung wide for the drive. He finished under strong left-handed urging, proving just good enough to catch Marino Marini, who had edged away from Midas Eyes in the stretch under jockey Tyler Baze.
Third in the San Vicente (gr. II) at seven panels at Santa Anita Feb. 1, Southern Image, a Florida-bred son of Halo's Image, had only one start since then, winning a 1 1/6-mile allowance at Del Mar during the summer. He signaled readiness with a 1:24 3/5 bullet workout in Arcadia Dec. 19.
Machowsky said he injured his hind pastern after the San Vicente. The trainer said he was considering the Super Derby or the El Cajon after Southern Image won at Del Mar, but he bruised a foot.
"He's always a real feisty horse. I just regrouped and pointed for this. We'll look at the Sunshine Millions (Classic) or the Strub Stakes next. I'm going to have to sit back and make a decision on it. That's what I'm thinking, one of those two races."
Espinoza said the work a week ago gave him quite a bit of confidence.
"In mid stretch he got stuck behind the gray horse (Marino Marini) and I switched my stick to the left hand, and it really picked him up. I didn't know if we were going to get up, but I thought we had a chance and he really kicked in late. It's a good sign that he was able to win today because he should be better around two turns."
Baze thought his mount, Marino Marini, ran remarkably well considering it was his first start on the dirt after 10 races on grass, nine of them in Ireland.
"I didn't know how he'd like the dirt, but man, around the turn me and (Midas Eyes) were pretty much head-and-head, and they both found another gear. At that point I said, 'I'm going right now and I hope they don't catch us.' He went, too, but we got beat at the wire on the last jump."
Velazquez said Midas Eyes was distracted and could use blinkers.
"That's the way he ran today, and I think blinkers might really help him out," he said. "Don't get me wrong, he ran a good race, but he can do better."
The winner, a dark bay, was a $300,000 Ocala purchase in March 2002. Arthur Appleton bred Southern Image, who was produced by the dam Pleasant Dixie (Dixieland Band).
The victory, worth $150,000, was the third in four career starts for Southern Image, who improved his career bankroll to $231,600. Southern Image came into the race with lowest earnings of any of the 12 starters.
Southern Image paid $29.40, $13 and $5.60. Marino Marini returned $26 and $9. Midas Eyes, who was ridden by John Velazquez, paid $2.80. The $2 exacta was worth a whopping $1,045.40.
Eye of the Tiger was fourth, three lengths behind Midas Eyes, followed by Watchem Smokey, Domestic dispute, Posse, Blazonry, Buddy Gil, Special Rate, Toccet and Zavata. Baltic Heights scratched.