03/06/2004 1:00AM

Southern Image best in Big Cap

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Southern Image wins the Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday at Santa Anita Park.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Southern Image displayed his speed when he won the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes over seven furlongs on Dec. 26. A month later, he showed his brilliance and class with a three-length win in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic.

In Saturday's $1 million , he needed both to overcome a pressured trip and score the most important win of his career.

Thrust into the role of favorite after the withdrawal of Pleasantly Perfect on Friday, Southern Image responded stylishly, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over the 4-year-old filly Island Fashion. Southern Image ($4) finished 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.64.

The victory marked the first success in the Big Cap for the California-based partnership of Don Blahut, Tom and Jerry Kagele, and Renee, Angie and Josh Tepper, trainer Mike Machowsky and jockey Victor Espinoza.

"It wasn't the fastest time in the world. I think off this he'll get better," Machowsky said. "He's had three tough races in a row. He can do almost anything and he doesn't get the best of trips."

Southern Image broke from post 2 in the field of 8 and raced along the rail throughout. Fourth on the first turn, he was within 1 1/2 lengths of pacesetter Toccet through early fractions of 23.04 and 46.30 seconds.

Machowsky and Espinoza hoped Southern Image could be rated outside of the frontrunners.

"He never got a breather," Machowsky said. "Going into the first turn, I knew he wouldn't get the trip I wanted."

Southern Image was within a neck of Toccet through six furlongs in 1:10.34. Espinoza took the lead on the final turn.

"Victor had to move early so he didn't get boxed in," Machowsky said.

Southern Image led by 1 1/2 lengths entering the stretch, but could not shake clear of Island Fashion, who reached a prominent position with a wide rally.

The winner of two Grade 1 stakes earlier at this meeting, Island Fashion never got within a length of Southern Image in the stretch, but was a threat until the final sixteenth.

"Victor looked like he had her held," Machowsky said. "We were waiting for the wire."

Island Fashion became the third female to finish second in the Big Cap, joining Next Move (1951) and Gamely (1969). None have won.

Saint Buddy rallied from sixth to run third, losing by 3 1-2 lengths. Richard Mandella trains Olmodavor, who finished fourth, and Pleasantly Perfect, who was scratched from the Big Cap on Friday after spiking a temperature.

Southern Image, 4, has won 5 of 6 starts and $1,381,600. A three-time stakes winner, his only loss was a third in the 2003 San Vicente Stakes.