01/22/2004 12:00AM

Hot pace scene for a cool million

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Cash or cachet? That was the choice facing the connections of Peace Rules and Southern Image. They chose to follow the money. There are one million reasons why these two Grade 1 winners are running in a restricted stakes like Saturday's Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita, as opposed to awaiting a more prestigious stakes like the Strub Stakes on Feb. 7.

"A million dollars is a factor," conceded Mike Machowsky, the trainer of Southern Image. "If he wins, it makes up for a lot of bumps in the road. It's a shame the races are so close together you can't juggle both of them."

Money talks. Strub walks.

The 1 1/8-mile Classic is the richest of the eight Sunshine Millions races, and the lucre lured 14 runners; a maximum of 12 can start. Peace Rules and Southern Image are the most accomplished runners in the field, the only ones owning Grade 1 stakes victories. They should attract the bulk of the wagering, but in a field loaded with speed, late-runners might offer tempting alternatives, particularly in the exotics.

Peace Rules is making his first start since finishing last in the Breeders' Cup Mile on turf in October. He is returning to the dirt, and he has a history of running well fresh. He returned from brief vacations to capture the Louisiana Derby and Haskell Invitational last year. This, however, will be his first start on Santa Anita's main track, and his propensity to pull hard early might get him in trouble if he refuses to follow jockey Jerry Bailey's commands.

"He's a very aggressive, speedy type of horse," said Bailey, who rode Peace Rules to a second-place finish in last summer's Travers Stakes. "He puts himself in the race."

Peace Rules is coupled in the wagering with Midas Eyes, since both are trained by Bobby Frankel and owned by Ed Gann. But Midas Eyes was entered only as a backup in case some unforeseen malady was to strike Peace Rules on the eve of the race. Midas Eyes is expected to await the Strub.

Southern Image won the Malibu Stakes on opening day, Dec. 26. That was only his fourth lifetime start, owing to minor setbacks. His lack of experience is offset by his latent talent. He has won three times, including a 1 1/16-mile allowance race last summer at Del Mar.

"Hopefully the setbacks were because he wasn't mature," Machowsky said. "Now he's a big, strong, good-looking horse."

The Classic's nine furlongs will be the farthest Southern Image has raced, and though he has sharp early speed, he has displayed an ability to rate just off the leaders, a tactic that should serve him well Saturday.

"On paper there's a lot of speed, but that doesn't always portray what's going to happen in a race," Machowsky said. "He can sit off the pace."

Excessivepleasure, Hot Market, Peace Rules, and Excess Summer all figure to be part of a lively pace. Some of the stretch-runners have major questions, but the race shape should flatter them.

Continental Red is best known for his turf performances, but he is 3 for 19 on dirt. One of those victories came in the Great State Challenge at Sam Houston in December 2002. He comes off a second-place finish to Redattore in the San Gabriel Handicap. His rail draw should afford him a ground-saving trip.

Grey Memo usually clunks up for a share, but he seems a shadow of his former self. He was winless last year, and is 0 for 15 at Santa Anita.

Touch the Wire looked like a certain winner at midstretch of the San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes two weeks ago, but after getting a dream run along the rail and taking the lead, he surrendered late to two horses who had been dueling on the lead the whole race. He figures to get another ideal pace setup this time, too.

Commander's Flag might draw in from the also-eligible list should Midas Eyes scratch. He figures to be a huge price, but he has the style to be a bomber in the latter part of trifecta plays. He was third in the California Cup Classic here in November.