01/24/2004 12:00AM

Southern Image looking bright

Southern Image, ridden by Victor Espinoza, used a stalking trip to win the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic Saturday at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Southern Image is making a convincing argument for national attention this winter at Santa Anita.

After posting an upset in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes last month, Southern Image won Saturday's $1 million for California-breds and Florida-breds at Santa Anita, easily handling his first start over 1 1/8 miles.

Ridden by Victor Espinoza, Southern Image attended a fast pace throughout and finished three lengths in front of pacesetter Excess Summer. Southern Image ($8.20) was timed in 1:47.67.

The win marked the second year in which a Florida-bred has won the richest race of the series for California and Florida-breds. Last year at Gulfstream Park, Best of the Rest won the Classic.

Excess Summer led through early fractions of 22.46 and 45.60 seconds, but was closely followed by Pay the Preacher, Standard Setter, and Southern Image.

Excess Summer held his lead through six furlongs in 1:09.57, but Southern Image moved closer with a three-wide rally on the final turn.

Espinoza urged Southern Image to the front in early stretch. The Judge Sez Who, a 40-1 shot, finished third.

Peace Rules, the even-money favorite who was making his 2004 debut, was fourth in the field of 12. Trained by Bobby Frankel and ridden by Jerry Bailey, Peace Rules was fifth on the backstretch and appeared to be well-placed, but was not a factor in the stretch.

The stalking style was not typical of Peace Rules's form in 2003, when he typically challenged for the lead.

The loss was the end of a frustrating day of stakes in the Sunshine Millions for Bailey. He rode all four favorites at Santa Anita, but failed to win. He finished third with two of his stakes mounts.

Pay the Preacher finished fifth, followed by Continental Red, White Buck, Grey Memo, Touch the Wire, Excessivepleasure, Hot Market, and Standard Setter.

Southern Image races for a partnership and is trained by Mike Machowsky. The Sunshine Millions Classic is the richest win of his career.

By Halo's Image, Southern Image, 4, has won 4 of 5 starts and $781,600. The Sunshine Millions was his third consecutive stakes win, a streak that began with a victory in an allowance race at Del Mar last August.