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Monday, July 31
Florida dominates inaugural Sunshine Millions

That loud groan that you're hearing now? It's emanating from California, after their breeding industry was trounced by Florida's, by a score of 56-16, in the inaugural Sunshine Millions.

Even Frank Stronach, Chairman of the Board of Magna Entertainment Corp., chimed in. Though Magna owns both Gulfstream and Santa Anita Parks and avowed neutrality, Stronach saw the trend.

"Florida will be able to say they won with authority and California will have to try to do better," he said in recapping the day. He also added that, despite cloudy and cool conditions at Gulfstream, it was a great day. "The Millions were there but the sunshine wasn't," he smiled.

It was the four Gulfstream Park races that set the trend for Florida's victory, with each going to a Florida-bred. But it was the narrowest possible win that started the day: C.T. Grether's Madame Pietra barely getting her neck on the line ahead of fellow Florida-bred Shameful in the Padua Stables Filly and Mare Sprint.

"She is so gutsy," praised the winner's trainer Howie Zucker, a New Yorker by birth who learned his trade at Gulfstream under legendary trainer Budd Leppman. "Every time they came to her she kicked in again."

The daughter of Roy Missy White Oak, by Baederwood, a product of Curtis Mikkelsen and Patricia Horth's Flintwood Farm, was the 6-5 favorite in the six-furlong race following a pair of stakes victories in California that closed out 2002.

But it was all she could do to overtake early pacesetter Shameful in the late stages of the distaff sprint while at the same time outfinishing Chispiski. The latter, trained by Zucker's long-time friend Ron Spatz, surprisingly employed a stalking style to miss the place by a nose.

"I rubbed horses for Budd a little longer than Ronnie so I guess this was my payoff," Zucker smiled. Noting the tough run by the Bob Baffert-trained runner-up, he added, "I thought that she would be the one to beat."

Madame Pietra is now three for three since Pat Valenzuela took over in the irons; not a coincidence the trainer feels.

"He gets her to settle, which is crucial," said Zucker. "It took her a long time to figure out this game but it looks like she's now got it."

"It was a long drive but we knew how good she is and winning this is no surprise," Valenzuela remarked. "She blew out the competition in her last two and while she hadn't been tested for gameness like this before, I never lost confidence through the stretch."

The final time was 1:10.22 and the winner's share of the $250,000 purse ups Madame Pietra's bankroll to $373,135 for six wins in 15 starts. It also caused Zucker to start thinking of the Breeders' Cup Sprint "If she is as good at six as she was at five that's a real possibility," he said while also enraptured by the day's concept.

"This is a great atmosphere. It feels just like a Breeders' Cup race with so many people and so much going on," said the man who saddled Crafty C.T. to a third-place finish in last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint. He concluded, "Score one for Florida."

Scoring for Florida was precisely the agenda in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic: the race was the day's centerpiece although it was carded as the second of Gulfstream's four Sunshine Millions races for television purposes.

But it was also a matter of scoring for people of remarkable patience.

"Nobody has any idea what this horse has gone through," said Eddie Plesa, Jr. after watching Best of the Rest become a millionaire with a _-length score over Booklet in the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company Classic.

"To overcome what he's overcome is just amazing. He's had four knee surgeries and once had a crack in the back of his knee that no horse could ever come back from."

"After all the adversity he hung in like a trooper," chimed in the 8-year-old's breeder/owner Bea Oxenberg, wiping the tears from her eyes.

Best of the Rest also had to overcome an outstanding performance by Booklet to win the 1 1/8-mile race. The son of Notebook broke from the treacherous 12-post post positions 10 or wider were a combined zero for 30 in Gulfstream routes this year heading into the day and was forced to run hard early.

"I was just hoping I could get over there but he wouldn't let me," said Booklet's rider Pat Day of the early burst from Island Skipper that denied him crossing to the rail. "And I didn't want to get into a speed duel, but I did."

Booklet and Island Skipper ran as a tandem through six-furlongs in a trying 1:10.58 while Best of The Rest and Eibar Coa were able to track comfortably in fourth.

"I broke right behind the speed and let him settle in good position," described Coa. "I knew the speed horses were going to come back to me."

Island Skipper did, but Booklet carried on with fortitude, not allowing Best of the Rest past until the final sixteenth and holding off the fast closing Grey Memo by a head for the place. The final time was 1:49.44.

"His class and the class of Booklet showed today," Plesa praised the top two. "He's four and Best of the Rest is eight, so it's like George Foreman a heavyweight champion that just won't get beat."

The $550,000 first price nearly doubles the earnings for the son of Skip Trial to $1.2 million and his tenth career stakes win makes him an incredible 14 for 27 lifetime. "He is without question the best horse I've ever trained. It's scary to think of what he would have been without the injuries," concluded Plesa.

Like Madame Pietra, Best of the Rest was favored in his heat, and it appeared that the Gulfstream half of the Florida Millions would stay especially chalky when 4-5 Cal-bred Excessivepleasure cleared by 1 _-lengths early in the Ocala Stud Dash for 3-year-olds.

But Edgar Prado, aboard Florida-bred Valid Video, decided to rush his horse up the rail and challenge for the front near the 3/8th pole.

"I think Pat (Valenzuela) may have been playing a game of cat and mouse with me by letting me through on the inside," said Prado. "But it didn't work out well for him because we got the money."

"I didn't want to shut him off and have my number taken down," was Valenzuela's explanation. Hollywood Park's leading rider added that he though his horse was moving more smoothly than Valid Video "and would have no problem putting him away."

But that never happened: the two raced head and head around the turn and down the stretch while clearing off from the rest of the field, before Valid Video managed to edge away by _-lengths in the final strides.

They hit the wire in 1:22.38 for the seven-furlongs, 3 _-lengths clear of the late rallying Florida-bred Supah Blitz in third.

"He likes wherever I run him," smiled winning trainer Dennis Manning. "After all, he's won three out of four starts and his only loss was when he was running sick in a grade one."

The trainer referred to Valid Video's last start, a fourth in Belmont's Futurity Stakes last September. That race followed a pair of wins including Monmouth's Sapling Stakes (G3) to begin his career and Manning said he was not at his best in New York.

"He spiked a fever of 104 the next day so he was obviously a sick horse," Manning blamed a virus. "So we gave him a lot of time off and when we saw the Sunshine Millions we felt it would be a good spot to bring him back."

The "we" Manning spoke of was himself and owner Mac Fehsenfeld who purchased the son of Valid Wager for $29,000 as a weanling in the OBS October mixed sale. Valid Video was bred by Casey Seaman.

"He's really bred to be a sprinter but I think he will eventually get two turns," Manning said of the future for the earner of $228,700, the bulk coming from today's $250,000 pot. "But he just ran hard off the layoff and now is not the time."

By the time of Gulfstream's final Sunshine Millions Race, the $350,000, 1 1/8-mile Franks Farm Filly and Mare Turf, Florida had already wrapped up the head-to-head competition with California.

But Florida-bred distaffers helped make it a route by capturing the top six spots, led to the wire by Santa Cruz Ranch's homebred Stay Forever.

The daughter of Stack remained well to the back and did not commence her charge until the quarter pole. By then, favored Cellars Shiraz, a newly-turned 4-year-old, had sprinted clear by two-lengths from an early stalking position and appeared a winner.

"I'd never ridden this mare before but my instructions were to stay back and come on the outside late," said Jose Santos, referring to his pre-race conversation with trainer Marty Wolfson. "He said he was saving this one for me."

Wolfson was also saving the 6-year-old mare with a history of physical problems especially for this race, noting, "We were pointing for this one, which is why we skipped the La Prevoyante."

That grade two was held last month at Calder, the track over which Stay Forever had made each of her previous seven starts. She bowed a tendon in her second career start and was away for nearly two years until resurfacing last July and promptly reeling off four straight wins, including a pair of Calder stakes.

Confidently, the trainer spotted her against males in the Bonnie Heath Turf Cup on Florida Millions Day in November and watched her finish third, beaten just one-length despite an assortment of trouble.

"She should have beaten Miesque's Approval that day," he said.

With Miesque's Approval across country in California for the Sunshine Millions Turf, Stay Forever faced fellow females today and boasted the largest margin of any of Gulfstream's four winners: she was 1 _-lengths clear of the chalk.

Cellars Shiraz just got the place in a rush that included Maliziosa, Libretto and Lush Soldier. The final time was 1:47.84.

"She has a lot of heart and is very determined," Wolfson almost managed a smile after the race. "She finishes fast even when there is a slow pace, but it wasn't a slow pace today."

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