03/02/2004 1:00AM

Local boy chases big dream

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A Big Cap win by Southern Image would be the ultimate for trainer Mike Machowsky.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Southern Image has already won a race worth $1 million for trainer Mike Machowsky. But for a racing fan who grew up in Southern California and watched the likes of Ack Ack and Vigors win the Santa Anita Handicap, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that compares to the Big Cap. On Saturday, Machowsky will be going for the most important win of his career with the best horse ever to have graced his stable.

"Growing up around horse racing and racing out here, there's one of two races you want to win as a trainer - the Santa Anita Handicap, and the Santa Anita Derby," said Machowsky, 38. "Just having a horse to run in it is a thrill."

Southern Image heads into the Santa Anita Handicap off a victory in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic. That followed his victory in Santa Anita's opening-day Malibu Stakes, which gave Machowsky the first Grade 1 victory of his career. The Big Cap, though, is a different beast entirely. Southern Image, who has won 4 of 5 starts, will be stretching out to 1 1/4 miles for the first time. And he will be facing Pleasantly Perfect, who won a 1 1/4-mile race at Santa Anita last fall, the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Pleasantly Perfect and Southern Image will be the top two choices in the wagering. And their match pits Machowsky against his mentor, Richard Mandella, the trainer of Pleasantly Perfect. Machowsky worked for Mandella for more than five years before striking out on his own in 1991.

"I'm glad to be running against Dick. He taught me what I know. If I win the race, it would be a credit to him," Machowsky said. "We remain close, and that's important. I'll ask him for advice about horses. He's pretty open-minded. He'll try anything.

"He taught me patience and having a no-nonsense attitude around the barn. No nonsense, no alcohol. Dick's a perfectionist. He wasn't the easiest guy to work for. I don't think I appreciated everything then, but I do now."

The patience learned from Mandella has paid off with Southern Image. Physical problems have interrupted the 4-year-old colt's career, but since returning last fall, Southern Image has run his two best races, winning the Malibu and the Sunshine Millions Classic.

"He's pretty remarkable," Machowsky said. "Horses come along, and you think they're pretty nice, and then you get him. He's special."

Machowsky first became interested in racing through his father. Dr. Helmut Machowsky, a general practitioner, owned a few Quarter Horses that raced at Los Alamitos, not far from the family's home in Fullerton, Calif. He then owned some Thoroughbreds. Machowsky, the oldest of five children and the only son, remembers accompanying his father to see Ack Ack win the Santa Anita Handicap in 1971. Both Machowsky and Ack Ack were 5 years old.

"I was into it. It was in my blood. I couldn't get enough of it," Machowsky said. "I've always had a passion for horse racing."

Machowsky's father had horses with trainer Clay Brinson, and arranged for his son to walk hots for Brinson one summer at Del Mar when he was 14. "I loved it," Machowsky said. "Jimmy Jordan was stabled next to Clay Brinson. For a kid to be around those old-timers, it was pretty neat. I just wanted to learn everything I could. I was hooked.

"When school started, I would walk hots on the weekends at Santa Anita, too. I'd go to work in the morning, then meet my dad at the races in the afternoon. I'm glad I didn't grow up in Arcadia. I'd have been at the track every day, and I probably would have turned into a degenerate gambler. In high school, when me and my friends were seniors, we'd get the Form, and then one of us would run up to Santa Anita and put the bets in."

When he graduated from high school, Machowsky decided he wanted to make the racetrack his career. "I knew I wanted to train," he said. His parents, by now divorced, were divided on this choice. "What kind of life will the racetrack make for you? It's just a bunch of gamblers," Machowsky recalls his mother, Susan, saying.

"I told her, I'm sorry, but it's something I love," Machowsky said.

Machowsky was determined. He worked during the day at the track, and for two years went to night school at Pasadena City College, not far from Santa Anita. After working for Brinson, Machowsky worked as a groom for Henry Moreno and then for Tom Walker, who had a West Coast string for Calumet Farm in the mid-1980's. Machowsky went back to work for Moreno, then moved over to become Mandella's foreman, and then his assistant.

"He was a smart guy, and he's shown that in his training," Mandella said of Machowsky. "He was quiet. He wasn't quite the character Dan Hendricks was, but nobody could quite match that.

"I'd like to keep these guys for 10 years," Mandella said, before delivering his dry punch line. "But they don't see it as a long-term opportunity."

Machowsky has built his stable to where it now numbers 28 horses. His family is growing, too. Two months ago, his wife, Dana, delivered their second daughter, Alyssa, joining Cameron, who is 21 months old. Dana, the daughter of veterinarian Dr. Joe Cannon, also has a 12-year-old daughter, Eden, from a previous marriage.

"I'm surrounded by women," Machowsky said. "Three girls and a wife. Four sisters." And, 20 years after his fateful decision to go to Santa Anita University, a mother who gets it.

"Oh yes, she'll be there Saturday," he said.