- Horse Racing - Sunshine Millions has horsemen energized for Jan. 25

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Monday, July 31
Sunshine Millions has horsemen energized for Jan. 25

This is the time of year that South Florida based horsemen begin to get excited, since January means opportunities to run in the national limelight and for significant purses. But this year the opening of Gulfstream Park has local horsemen energized for another reason, and much of the talk around the backstretch centers on a single subject.

"I'm really looking forward to the Sunshine Millions," said Milt Wolfson, whose The Judge Sez Who is a likely candidate for the $1 million Classic.

"We're planning on giving her some time off and then shooting for the filly sprint race in the Sunshine Millions," said Ron Spatz after his Chispiski captured Calder's Chaposa Springs Handicap (G3) in December.

"The Sunshine Millions is where we're heading with Sir Bear," affirmed trainer Ralph Ziadie. The Florida-bred has already captured a pair of grade one stakes and has earned $2.5 million, but will be seeking by far the biggest purse in his career in the Classic. "You always want to defend your home turf, and we think he's absolutely at his best at Gulfstream."

Other locally based trainers -- Manny Tortora, Eddie Plesa, Jr. and Billy Cesare among them -- are also eyeing the Sunshine Millions with Florida-breds such as Supah Blitz, Best of the Rest and Cellars Shiraz, respectively.

And it's not only Calder-based trainers who have a gleam in their eye: Hall of Famer Bill Mott, whose resume includes five Breeders' Cup wins and multiple training titles at places like Saratoga and Belmont, is a fan. "I'm really intrigued by the series of races for Florida and California breds," he said, indicating he may start as many as six runners in the series of races. "They've done a good job of including races for the important divisions, and the purses certainly make it worthwhile to take a hard look."

Ah, the purses. Yes indeed: $3.6 million dollars in total to be distributed to registered Florida and California breds in the eight-race series, a cooperative effort between Magna Entertainment Corp. and its racetracks; the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association; the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association; the Thoroughbred Owners of California; and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association. The date is January 25, and four races -- the 1 1/16-mile, $750,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff, the 1 1/8-mile, $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf, the six-furlong, $250,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint, and the seven-furlong, $250,000 Sunshine Million Oaks will be run at Santa Anita Park. Meanwhile, Gulfstream will host the 1 1/8-mile, $350,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf, the six-furlong, $250,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint, the seven-furlong, $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash (for 3-year-olds) as well as the nine-furlong Classic on the same afternoon. It promises to be a glorious afternoon.

"The response from the horsemen has just been phenomenal," said Gulfstream President Scott Savin, pointing to the 326 horses that were made eligible for the series when the early bird nominations closed on Dec. 9. "The number of nominations has far exceeded our expectations." Although Florida lagged behind California somewhat among the early results -- 54 percent of the nominees are Cal-breds -- there is still an opportunity to catch up, as the regular nomination process remains open through Jan 11. But more important than the rivalry, Savin feels, is the cooperative spirit in which the Sunshine Millions has come together . "This shows what we can accomplish when all entities are working together and are on the same page," he said. "Usually you get the alphabet soups all fighting, but here we were able to get an entirely different state involved. This is a process in which six groups have shared equally." Besides the purses, funded evenly between the FTBOA, TOC, CTBA, FHBPA, and the two tracks, Savin remarked on the process by which Gulfstream and Santa Anita racing officials developed a cooperative process to reach out to horsemen to promote the series as well as the coordination of post times for the eight races that will "treat the Santa Anita races just like they were part of the Gulfstream card."

Noting the extensive reach of Magna, Savin predicted that the Sunshine Millions could be the start of a process that could ultimately include statebreds from places such as Maryland, where Magna is in the process of closing on purchasing the holdings of the Maryland Jockey Club, and Texas. That was precisely the thought when Magna's chairman Frank Stronach first conceived of the idea.

"This event will allow two of the country's best Thoroughbred states to compete against each other in an exciting and unique way," said Stronach. "We have great plans for this day and we ultimately hope to grow the Sunshine Millions."

Richard Hancock, the FTBOA's executive vice president, gives Stronach vast credit for envisioning the Sunshine Millions, and calls him a visionary. "We've never had anyone treat us like this before," Hancock said. "It was a brilliant and very courageous move for him to generously match the funds of the breeders' groups, and it will ultimately help the grass roots of the Thoroughbred industry."

Citing the bevy of stakes opportunities, all brand new, for Florida-bred runners in a very short span -- the cornucopia began with November's Florida Million, cascaded into December's NTRA Great State Challenge and will climax in the Sunshine Millions -- Hancock called this a "banner year" and said that races such as these are the perfect tools to market Florida-breds.

"For a few minutes, people stopped talking about the programs in New York and Kentucky," he said with a smile. "Products such as these really increase the value of Florida-breds. It showcases you better than when you run against yourself." Mentioning a Florida-bred and Cal-bred contestant from the Great State Challenge, both of whom may return for the Florida Millions, Hancock added, "When people see horses like Forbidden Apple or Continental Red and notice where they were bred, they realize just what you have going on." According to Doug Burge, executive vice president and general manager of the CTBA, the Great State Challenge also provided a perfect stepping stone into the Sunshine Millions.

"California and Florida were the only states that won more than one race in the Challenge," he said, referring to the victories by Continental Red and Crackup (in the Classic and Juvenile, respectively) and Elegant Designer and My Cousin Matt (in the Juvenile Fillies and Sprint), "So that gives us more of a rivalry than we've had."

Burge makes the case that, although his state finished fourth in the weighted point system used at the Great State Challenge, California may have had the best showing. "We only had four horses there and were only represented in three races, two of which we won," he said with pride. "That's something to build on."

And build on it they will: Burge recites with pleasure some of the California runners included on the nomination list. "Disturbingthepeace is a multiple graded stakes winning sprinter and Echo Eddie was good enough to finish second in the sprint race in Dubai," he starts by naming probables for the Florida Millions Sprint, not stopping until he has compiled a list that includes such talented runners as Humorous Lady, Above Perfection, Super High, Gray Memo and Calkins Road.

But, of course, Florida has its own lengthy list of dynamos: in addition to the aforementioned runners such graded stakes winners as Booklet, Band Is Passing, Svea Dahl and Miesque's Approval have been nominated. Hancock says that winning the series is important.

"If we lose we'll just go back and breed faster horses," he said. "But just the opportunity to put our horses on a stage like this will be wonderful."

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