12/27/2003 1:00AM

Southern Image gets breather

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Southern Image had a right to be tired. After putting every ounce of energy into his winning performance in Friday's Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita, he was exhausted. So, he will get a few days off, but as far as trainer Mike Machowsky is concerned, Southern Image more than earned it.

"He'll be tired for a few mornings," Machowsky said Saturday. "He gives me so much when he runs. Everything worked out. The problems he had had were aggravating, but I never lost confidence in him."

A 3-year-old colt, Southern Image was making only the fourth start of his career in the Malibu, and it came exactly one year after his debut. Southern Image has had his career interrupted twice. In his debut, he beat the well-regarded Minister's Wild Cat on Santa Anita's opening day. But after finishing third in the San Vicente Stakes, Machowsky had to give Southern Image a vacation.

"He was sore behind. I thought it might be his stifle," Machowsky said. "He had a nuclear scan, and his right-hind pastern lit up. When we scanned it two months later, it was clean."

Southern Image returned to training and raced again at Del Mar, where he won a first-level allowance race going 1 1/16 miles Aug. 2. Machowsky planned on running Southern Image in the El Cajon Stakes at the end of the meet, but Southern Image was injured in a workout while preparing for that race.

"It was the same leg," Machowsky said. "He had a foot bruise. It took a long time to get that quieted down."

That setback negated any plans of running in the major fall races, such as the Breeders' Cup. Machowsky stepped back and pointed Southern Image for the Malibu, whose Grade 1 ranking and seven furlongs made a nice combination.

"There was no reason to rush," Machowsky said. "After we missed all that, we just regrouped for the Strub Series."

The Malibu is the first leg of the Strub Series, which is exclusively for 4-year-olds of 2004. The second leg is the 1 1/16-mile San Fernando Stakes, but it comes up quickly, on Jan. 10. Machowsky said his options for Southern Image are the final leg, the 1 1/8-mile Strub Stakes on Feb. 7, or - because Southern Image was bred in Florida - the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 24. Both are at Santa Anita.

"The Sunshine Millions, the positive is the money, but the negative is that it's back a little quicker off a big race, and he runs so well fresh," Machowsky said. "The timing is better for the Strub."

Southern Image got up in the last jump to beat Marino Marini by a head in 1:22.65. Midas Eyes, sent off at even-money with entrymate Watchem Smokey, was another length back in third. Posse was seventh, Buddy Gil ninth, Toccet 11th, and Zavata 12th and last.

The Malibu was the highlight of the opening-day card, which was seen on-track by 28,295 fans, a gain of 10 percent from the previous year. The overall handle of $15,266,039 was down approximately 6 percent from last year.