03/08/2004 12:00AM

Long road to Big Cap glory

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Allen Tepper's cellphone was flashing Mike Machowsky's number. It had to be bad news. Thoroughbred trainers don't call their clients from out of the blue, at three in the afternoon, just three days before the horse of their dreams is about to run in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.

"Mike never calls," Tepper said. "Well, hardly ever. It couldn't be good, not that close to the race. When I answered, I was ready for anything."

So what was the message?

"He just wanted to say, hi, how's it going, everything was fine, and he'd see us on Saturday," Tepper said. "I nearly fainted from relief."

Machowsky, standing nearby, broke into a mischievous grin, allowing himself the luxury of sweet vindication. Some seven months earlier he had put his job on the line, vowing that patience was the key to the problem-prone, barely raced bundle of talent named Southern Image, and that waiting a little bit longer would reap great rewards.

Machowsky was right, and then some.

It was late in the day on Saturday, about an hour after Southern Image came through with the bravest race of his brief career to win the 67th running of the Santa Anita Handicap. Tepper and his partners were gathered in the director's room, sipping the bubbly and savoring the kind of moment reserved only for the most fortunate racehorse owners.

Tepper was right - most of the time those phone calls bear bad news. It was Machowsky's mentor, Richard Mandella, who had to make that kind of call the day before the Handicap, when Pleasantly Perfect spiked a 102-degree fever and had to be withdrawn.

And it was during Machowsky's tenure as an assistant to Mandella, during the late 1980's, when the same kind of 11th-hour heartbreak took their sure thing Phone Trick out of the 1986 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita Park.

"It's a sick, helpless feeling," Machowsky said, feeling Mandella's pain.

The defection of Pleasantly Perfect took the edge off a Santa Anita Handicap already dulled by the Dubai World Cup defection of Medaglia d'Oro, the delayed return of Candy Ride, and the re-tooling of Congaree as a sprinter/miler.

That left Southern Image - winner of the Malibu and the Sunshine Millions Classic already at the meet - alone at even-money. This was in spite of the fact that he had never raced beyond nine furlongs, never won a graded event past 7 furlongs, and was making only the sixth start of his life.

Furthermore, Southern Image does not turn a full 4 years old until April 7. That explains, at least in part, his roughhouse enthusiasm for both the mornings and the afternoons. Leading up to the Handicap, he had been galloping strong and working fast. In the saddling barn before the race, under the firm hand of groom Orlando Mendoza, he bounced and kicked out with his heels. Machowsky, who was about to make his Santa Anita Handicap debut, tried hard to act calm.

"A little on edge, yeah," he confessed. "But it helps that the horse is doing so good."

The race itself required Southern Image to cool his jets behind Toccet's early pace, then hold fast to the inside lane with steady pressure from outside and behind. Up in the stands, Machowsky worried that Southern Image would unravel. But Victor Espinoza, on top of the action, knew he had plenty of horse.

In the end, Southern Image had more than enough to hold off the gallant finish of the filly, Island Fashion, while Saint Buddy loomed large at the eighth pole before fading to third. Stakes winners Olmodavor, Buddy Gil, and Star Cross were among the unplaced.

"I know this sounds like b.s.," Machowsky said, "but I really wish Pleasantly Perfect had been in there. I wanted to find out exactly where my horse stood against a real talented horse like that."

No doubt he was speaking for the 27,653 fans in attendance as well. But no matter who shows up, the Handicap emits its own hard-earned glow. Machowsky must be content with knowledge that, together with his staff and his patrons, he is now and forever part of Santa Anita Handicap history.

At the age of 38, Machowsky is among the youngest trainers to win the big one. Larry Sterling was 38 when Vigors won in 1978. Rodney Rash was 34 when Urgent Request won in 1995, and John Gosden, obviously a child prodigy, was 31 when he saddled Bates Motel in 1983.

Machowsky, though, was raised in Southern California and is able to claim deep Santa Anita roots, thanks to his father, Dr. Helmut Machowsky.

"Right there, by the hot dog stand, is where me and my dad would watch the races from," Machowsky said, as he was pointing to a spot in the infield near the western end of the totalisator board, a very long way from the director's room.

"The first horse I remember was Ack Ack," he added, referring to the 1971 Horse of the Year. "And that was my first Handicap, the one he won. We were standing right there when he went by."

Machowsky was 5 at the time. But in Santa Anita Handicap years, it seems like only yesterday.