Grade I winner Southern Image, ridden comfortably by Victor Espinoza, ranged up three wide on the outside, then won a brief stretch battle with Excess Summer to register a commanding three-length victory in the $1 million Barretts/CTBA Classic on Sunshine Millions Day at Santa Anita Saturday.
Trained by Michael Machowsky for Blahut Stables LLC and partners, the Florida-bred 4-year-old colt by Halo's Image proved a convincing winner in the 1 1/8-mile Classic in a time of 1:47 3/5.
In the final Sunshine Millions standings, Florida outscored California for the second year in a row, 45-27.
Southern Image was coming off a game victory by a head in the seven-furlong Malibu (gr. I) at Santa Anita Dec. 26. He has raced his entire five-race career – which includes four wins and a third-place finish – in Southern California. He was trying the nine-furlong distance for the first time. Southern Image had been out of action since August prior to winning the Malibu.
It was an emotional and lucrative victory for the 38-year-old trainer Machowsky.
"I'm in tears," Machowsky said. "This is my biggest win. The Grade I (Malibu Stakes) was very nice but this is special, too. He was a little closer than I thought he'd be but I was a little worried he'd be rank today just routing first time in a while and only his second route race. But I couldn't be happier."
Given a confident ride by Espinoza, Southern Image sat third while stalking the pace set by Excess Summer and Pay the Preacher, who provided fast fractions of :22 2/5, :45 3/5 and 1:09 2/5.
Without prompting, Southern Image moved up on the outside of the pacesetters while three wide on the final turn. In upper stretch, the dark bay dueled with Excess Summer, ridden by Gary Stevens, soon gaining the lead and pulling away in deep stretch. The Judge Sez Who, 44-1 with Kent Desormeaux aboard, rallied along the inside to finish a distant third, eight lengths behind the winner.
"I had to get my position right out of the gate and as soon as we did he relaxed," Espinoza said. "I really thought he would be more rank, but by the half-mile pole he had it all together. I didn't want him to take the lead too soon, because when he does, he hangs a little bit, waits on the other horses, but I had so much horse. I just waited for someone to come up from behind. I was just lucky that I had so much horse left at the end.
"I think we are going to have a good and long future with this horse."
Even-money favorite Peace Rules, Jerry Bailey in the irons for trainer Bobby Frankel, was fourth after bobbling at the break and failing to sustain his rally in the lane. Peace Rules was making his first start since wobbling home last of 13 as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) on the turf at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.
"He was strong when I didn't want him to be strong," Bailey said. "He absolutely turned the bridle loose turning up the backside and he never got back in it again. He very much resented trying to lay off the pace. They were rolling fast and the idea was to try and sit off them and he got very annoyed at it."
Arthur Appleton bred Southern Image, whose dam, Pleasant Dixie, is by Dixieland Band. The winner earned $550,000 and has now banked $781,600 in his brief career.
The second choice in the field of 12, Southern Image paid $8.20, $4.60 and $4.20. Excess Summer returned $6.60 and $5.20. The Judge Sez Who's show price was $11.40.
Pay the Preacher followed Peace Rules across the wire to finish fifth. Continental Red, White Buck, Grey Memo, Touch the Wire, Excessivepleasure, Hot Market and Standard Setter completd the order of finish. Midas Eyes and Commander's Flag scratched.