12/26/2003 1:00AM

Southern Image's closing kick produces 13-1 upset in Malibu


ARCADIA, Calif. -- Talk about fast starts. Santa Anita opened its 67th winter meeting Friday with a large, enthusiastic crowd, and 3-year-old sprinters put on a sensational show in the Grade 1, $250,000 Malibu Stakes, with 13-1 shot Southern Image getting up in the last jump to beat 30-1 Marino Marini by a head.

An estimated 28,000 fans attended the opening-day card. They saw a terrific running of the seven-furlong Malibu. Marino Marini and Midas Eyes dueled through fractions of 22.55 seconds and 45.08 for the first half-mile. Southern Image, caught four wide on the turn while chasing the leaders, resolutely kept to his task and just nailed Marino Marini, who had gotten the best of Midas Eyes inside the furlong pole.

Midas Eyes, sent off at even-money with entrymate Watchem Smokey, was another length back in third.

The lightly raced Southern Image was making only the fourth start of his career. He has now won three times. He had not raced since August, but had turned in a series of strong works for his return for trainer Mike Machowsky.

Southern Image ($29.40), ridden by Victor Espinoza, was timed in 1:22.65 for seven furlongs on the fast main track.

Buckland Manor adapts to change

The weather was cool but spectacular, in contrast to the fierce, nasty storm that roared through the area the previous day. In the wake of the storm was a delightful panorama. A clear, blue sky had only a few puffy clouds, which danced atop the nearby San Gabriel Mountains.

The rain saturated the turf course and forced the two scheduled grass races to the main track. Included was the $78,000 Sir Beaufort Stakes, but trainer Paco Gonzalez did not mind.

His 3-year-old colt Buckland Manor, a winner on both turf and dirt, made an adjustment that several turf specialists in the race failed to do. After battling for the lead through quick fractions, Buckland Manor turned back a bid from Saint Buddy to score a two-length victory in the one-mile race with jockey Corey Nakatani. Saint Buddy finished second, six lengths in front of Kewen.

"I was happy the race was on the dirt," Gonzalez said. "There's more options on the dirt."

Buckland Manor ($5.60), the 9-5 favorite, covered one mile on a track rated fast in 1:36.06 for his fourth victory in eight starts for his owners and breeders, Trudy McCaffery and John Toffan. He had not raced since Oct. 23. Gonzalez wanted to run Buckland Manor in last month's Hollywood Derby, but he was excluded because of insufficient earnings when the race drew more than the maximum of 14 runners. He then entered Buckland Manor in a race one week later, "but he got a little colic that morning," Gonzalez said.

In the other undercard stakes race, Don'tsellmeshort won his third stakes race of the year when he captured the $125,000 California Breeders' Association Stakes for 2-year-olds. Despite his solid 3 for 7 record, Don'tsellmeshort paid a generous $28.80 after covering seven furlongs in a pokey 1:25.09 under jockey Alex Solis. Don'tsellmeshort beat Badgett's Mandate by 1 1/2 lengths, with Watch Over Me four lengths back in third. Dan Hendricks trains Don'tsellmeshort for Cecil Peacock.

O'Neill could challenge Baffert

The track was rated good for the day's first race, but was upgraded to fast after the second race; the opening quarter miles of the first two races both were run in less than 22 seconds. The Doug O'Neill-trained Hosco just held off favored Ice Wynnd Fire to take the opener, making O'Neill the leading trainer for 30 minutes. Does O'Neill have the strength in numbers to topple perennial leader Bob Baffert as Santa Anita's leading trainer?

"I think so. The biggest key to being leading trainer is usually having a lot of claimers, though Baffert did it without claimers," O'Neill said. "We're blessed to have a lot a horses who can run every two or three weeks."

Large crowd sees some changes

A large crowd - lured by the Malibu, and the traditional opening-day giveaway, a wall calendar - came out for the races, with many families enjoying the infield. By 1 p.m., the parking entrance at the northeast end of the lot was filled to capacity. Cars on Huntington Drive at that entrance were re-routed to another entrance, lined with palm trees, that underwent a beautification project in recent weeks.

Inside, the fans found a few changes since Santa Anita played host to the Breeders' Cup. Most striking was the just-built Sirona Grille, a new restaurant and adjacent bar at the rear of the first floor of the grandstand overlooking the paddock. The spacious bar, which has ample televisions, drew a large crowd early in the day and looked to be off to a spirited start.