06/09/2004 12:00AM

Machowsky has taken show on road

Mike Machowsky and Southern Image, in Maryland before the Pimlico Special, go for six in a row.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Unsure of the local customs, Mike Machowsky was wondering aloud whether it would be inappropriate for him to wear shorts to Churchill Downs when kicking back on an otherwise forgettable weekday program of racing.

Having spent the vast majority of his racetrack time at Hollywood, Santa Anita, and Del Mar, Machowsky did not know how California casual translated to the rest of American racing. Duly informed that shorts were quite acceptable, Machowsky had one fewer concern heading into one of the biggest weekends of his 12-year training career.

Not only for Machowsky, but for many other people with an interest in how the North American handicap division has taken shape through the first half of this year, the coming weekend at Churchill is a huge one indeed. With Medaglia d'Oro having been retired this past week, and with the notable exception of consensus leader Pleasantly Perfect, one might reasonably argue that four of North America's five most accomplished handicap horses still in training will be here Saturday for the 23rd running of the Grade 1 .

Machowsky, the trainer of Southern Image, harbors a healthy respect for the three main challengers to his stable star in the Foster 'Cap - Peace Rules, Perfect Drift, and Midway Road - and therefore has no quarrel with calling them the collective elite of their class, save Pleasantly Perfect.

"Everybody kept saying the Pimlico Special was the race of the year," Machowsky said while at trackside Wednesday morning. "Well, this is even tougher."

If in fact the Pimlico Special was the best race so far this year in the handicap division, then Southern Image has quite a head start on divisional honors. Southern Image, a 4-year-old Florida-bred colt by Halo's Image, thoroughly dominated that May 14 race, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over Midway Road and earning a 118 Beyer Speed Figure with the third Grade 1 victory of his nascent career.

Having won five straight races dating to an allowance race at Del Mar last August, Southern Image would further strengthen his divisional stature with his sixth in a row in the $750,000 Foster. Machowsky, 38, has been working with racehorses in California since he was 14, so he knows better than to take anything for granted.

"This race Saturday will really set the table for who really is right there," he said, acknowledging that Pleasantly Perfect, winner of the Dubai World Cup for trainer Richard Mandella, has to be considered the top handicap horse until further notice.

"Murray's horse," a reference to Perfect Drift, trained by Murray Johnson, "is making his third start off a layoff, and this race might really set up for him. Midway Road, he ran lights out against us in Maryland. And Peace Rules, Bobby [Frankel] wouldn't have sent him here unless he was training awesome. It's an extremely tough race."

Before starting his own public stable in 1992, Machowsky worked for 5 1/2 years as a stablehand and assistant to Mandella, and now smilingly calls himself a graduate of "College Mandella." With Pleasantly Perfect and Southern Image having developed into legitimate challengers for Horse of the Year honors, Machowsky said he would like nothing more than an eventual showdown pitting himself against his former boss. In any case, it has become very clear that the power base within the division emanates from California, where Pleasantly Perfect, Southern Image, and the Met Mile winner Pico Central, are based. Peace Rules also has logged some time there.

"That's where it is right now, anyhow," said Machowsky.

Machowsky, still a relative unknown outside of California racing circles, said Southern Image might be getting a little more notoriety if the colt were trained by Mandella, Frankel, or another household name such as Bob Baffert.

"But I honestly don't mind," he said. "Actually, we've gotten quite a bit of attention, although everybody has been overshadowed by Smarty Jones, which is understandable. Besides, it keeps the pressure off me that way."

By his own count, Machowsky has been to Churchill on two previous occasions: to send out a 44-1 shot named Lakotay, who finished 11th in the 1992 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and to watch the 2000 Breeders' Cup before heading to a dispersal sale at Keeneland the following day. With this current visit obviously being his most important so far, Machowsky has come as well prepared as possible.

"I've watched the race replays for all the main contenders, trying to get in my mind how the race is going to shape up," he said. "The good thing about my horse is he can be on the lead, and he also doesn't have to have the lead. Hopefully we'll have options when they leave there."

It is often said that racing isn't played in short pants. Come Saturday, Machowsky will be attired accordingly, for he knows that it's time to get serious.