01/26/2004 1:00AM

Sun always shines for winners

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It was late in the afternoon last Saturday before the sun finally made an appearance on the distant horizon. By then, Santa Anita's version of Magna Entertainment's Sunshine Millions was safely in the books, played out beneath cloudy skies, and the tote boards were glowing in the deep twilight.

It was a stiff upper lip kind of day, and not just for the 18,000 or so fans who bundled up and braved the bitter taste of Southern California winter. With temperatures sinking as low as 55 (eat your heart out, Boston), those who put on the show were compromised as well.

Imagine, if you can, the chilly disappointment of the young women imported as decorations for the advertised sideshows, all set to preen and flash the flesh as welcome diversions from the dreary business of Thoroughbred racing. To their credit, the Hawaiian Tropic models soldiered on, strutting their west paddock runway as a crowd of heavily coated guys woofed and whooped. Even so, it was far too cold for the girls in the Hooters booth to emerge from the shelter of their orange and white-trimmed jogging suits, and the roving court of Miss Sunshine Millions was usually found wrapped in sweaters, huddling under heat lamps. Share the heat.

In the end, it was the action on the track that supplied the true glow, and no one beamed with more joy than Mike Machowsky, trainer of the $1 million Classic winner Southern Image, unless it was Sandee Kirkwood, who owns Valentine Dancer, winner of the $500,000 Filly/Mare Turf, with her husband, Al.

"I know, I'm crying, and I can't stop smiling," said Sandee Kirkwood more than an hour after Valentine Dancer, a California-bred daughter of In Excess, charged home three-quarters of a length clear of Moscow Burning. "This is the biggest race we've ever won."

The Kirkwoods had one coming. For awhile, early in their careers, they had their hands on Budroyale but let him slip away in a claim and win more than $2.7 million for someone else. That was nothing, though, compared to the horrible loss of their stakes winner Hello in the stretch of the 1996 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, when Hello, a 3-year-old colt, fractured a leg and went sprawling. He could not be saved.

"It was a long time before I could even look at a picture of him," Sandee said. "I've never worn the outfit I bought special for that day. It's hanging somewhere with the dirt from the track still on it. It hit me so hard, I wasn't sure I wanted to stay in racing."

But they did, and on Valentine's Day of 2000, they received a newborn filly from their Mr. Prospector mare, Gilded Dancer. The name came easily.

"She's not the easiest mare to train, but she's as genuine as they come," said Craig Lewis, who had to replace a suspended Pat Valenzuela at the last minute aboard Valentine Dancer. Jon Court, in from Kentucky for the mount on Excessivepleasure in the Classic, got the windfall.

"That did present a problem," said Lewis, who also has trained major stakes winners Larry the Legend and Cutlass Reality. "The filly has her quirks, so it helps to know her. We knew she was ready to run a big one, though, no matter who was in the saddle."

In winning the Classic, by far the biggest race of his career, the 38-year-old Machowsky finally has emerged from the label of "Richard Mandella's former assistant." He also has introduced a legitimate talent to the ranks of the older handicap division.

The three-length victory of Southern Image over four-time stakes winner Excessive Summer in the nine-furlong Classic was as good a performance in restricted company as could ever be expected. Both colts emerged from similarly brilliant races: Excess Summer in the 7 1/2-furlong On Trust at Hollywood Park and Southern Image from the seven-furlong Malibu on Santa Anita's opening day. And while Excess Summer never got a break on the quick pace, Southern Image was never far behind.

So the sharpest horses finished 1-2, and in the process, Machowsky was spared a grim test of character. Excess Summer was claimed from Machowsky by trainer Jeff Mullins and his partners last April, then spent the ensuing eight months racking up nearly $300,000 in purses.

"I bought him for $3,500 and lost him for $40,000," Machowsky said, as his Southern Image syndicate celebrated around him. "I thought that was doing pretty good. But you always kick yourself a little when one like that gets away. So there we are at the head of the stretch in a million-dollar race, and for a second it looks like Jeff was really going to stick it to me."

Bullet dodged, Machowsky now can go about the business of discovering where Southern Image will fit in a group of older runners that appears to be the meanest in many years. Waiting for Southern Image in the cold, cruel world of open stakes competition will be Congaree, Funny Cide, Medaglia d'Oro, Perfect Drift, Candy Ride, and Pleasantly Perfect. From here on, the million-dollar races get considerably tougher to win.