01/24/2008 1:00AM

Clouds loom over $1 million Classic

Bill Denver/EquiPhoto
Diamond Stripes, the 7-2 program favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Classic, would be racing for the first time on the West Coast.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Inclement weather at Santa Anita, combined with a synthetic Cushion Track racing surface that neither drains nor dries as originally advertised, has jeopardized the richer half of the $3.6 million Sunshine Millions program on Saturday at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park.

An eight-stakes package for horses bred in California and Florida, the Sunshine Millions annually marks the unofficial start of the best winter racing. And though four stakes at Gulfstream will go as planned in Florida, officials were less optimistic regarding the four Santa Anita stakes, including the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic.

"We're at the mercy of the weather right now," track president Ron Charles said Thursday after the weekday card was canceled due to track condition. Though rain is expected into the weekend, Charles was reluctant to pull the plug on the important Saturday card because forecasters called for a possible break from late Friday through late Saturday.

"We still have hope that if that window is open on Saturday, that we can have the Sunshine Millions," Charles said. "If not, we'd be looking at rescheduling."

The timing could not be worse. Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Santa Anita and Gulfstream, devotes significant resources into marketing the late-January event as something special.

"This is an important day for Magna," Charles said. "They took a day that basically was obscure and made it one of the top four days of the meet."

If the weather relents, track superintendent Richard Tedesco could scrape the wet top layer off the main track to create a safe, consistent surface for Saturday.

"The weather would have to fully cooperate for us to have that window," Charles said.

If the Saturday card were canceled, the decision would likely be made Friday. Charles said the four stakes would be rescheduled after the main track undergoes repairs to alleviate the drainage issues.

"We'll reschedule it to give the horse the best opportunity to race on the best surface," Charles said, adding that the date would be determined after meeting with horsemen.

ESPN2 is scheduled to broadcast the $1 million Classic live from Santa Anita. Irrespective of a possible cancellation, the one-hour Sunshine Millions broadcast will include two live races from Gulfstream Park. In the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff (race 9), Breeder's Cup Distaff winner Ginger Punch, the champion older filly of 2007, makes her 2008 debut.

The $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf is race 10 at Gulfstream, led by Grade 2 winner Presious Passion and Icy Atlantic. Two other Gulfstream stakes are the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint (race 7), in which Grade 1 winner Benny the Bull is expected to start favored; and the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Oaks (race 8) for 3-year-old fillies, where Blitzing and American County are the principals.

There were 14 Eastern-based horses shipped to California for the Sunshine Millions; their travel expenses will be paid even if they return home without starting.

Perhaps the best East-to-West shipper is Grade 2 winner Diamond Stripes, the 7-2 program favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Classic (race 7). However, he would be racing for the first time on the West Coast, and trainer Richard Dutrow is not brimming with confidence.

"We're taking a big chance hoping he likes that track, and he's going to have to like that track to win that race because it's not an easy spot," Dutrow said.

Diamond Stripes has won 5 of 10, and last year earned seven consecutive triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures. But uncertainty is the prevailing sentiment.

"He's traveling cross-country, and we're just hoping he handles whatever they call that track," Dutrow said. "We're not confident, but it seems like [most] horses in the race are in the same boat."

The field for the Classic also includes Grade 3 winner Electrify, the 2007 Sunshine Millions winner McCann's Mojave, 2007 California Cup Classic winner Bold Chieftan, Grade 1 sprinter Bilo, Grade 1 winner Buzzards Bay, Celtic Dreamin, Now Victory, Seminole Native, Go Between, Going Ballistic, and Gottcha Gold.

Bilo is running long for the first time, in his first start since a private sale and transfer to trainer Mike Mitchell. The question for Bilo is, Can a sprinter stay 1 1/8 miles?

"Honestly, I don't know," Mitchell said. "Sometimes, you just know a horse can run long. That's not the case. This horse, I'm on the fence. If this were a $150,000 race, I probably wouldn't do it. But he has trained well enough that I have to try it for $1 million."

If there is any doubt about the West Coast significance of the Sunshine Millions, it is illustrated in two other stakes. Nashoba's Key is scheduled to make her first start of the season in the $500,000 Filly and Mare Turf (race 5). That race, however, is scheduled for 1 1/8 miles on turf.

The condition of the course will influence the participation of Nashoba's Key, arguably the most recognizable horse on the Santa Anita card. The significance of her participation was not lost on track president Charles, who said, "We'd have to weight that in" when deciding whether to reschedule the races.

Del Mar Futurity winner Georgie Boy is scheduled to run in the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash (race 9). Dearest Trickski entered the $300,000 Filly and Mare Sprint (race 4).