01/26/2006 12:00AM

Crowd drawn to a $3.6M day


ARCADIA, Calif. - The graded stakes schedule is on hold Saturday at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park. Instead, a $3.6 million purse package has lured large fields to the fourth annual Sunshine Millions.

The restricted eight-race program - four races at Santa Anita and four at Gulfstream - pits California-breds against Florida-breds and showcases the marquee racetracks owned by Magna Entertainment Corp. Although the Florida-versus-California "rivalry" appears to be artificial, at least the Sunshine Millions purse money is genuine.

The program is funded through an agreement between Magna, breeders in Florida and California, and horsemen in both states. At $3.6 million, it represents the most lucrative day of racing on the winter calendar. That was reflected at the entry box - 98 horses entered the eight races, an average of more than 12 per race.

The Sunshine Millions program is packed into a time frame that allows almost no time to blink.

"At first, it was awkward squeezing in so many races," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "But there's a lot of action. . . . It's a dream for owners, breeders, and trainers."

Bettors, too. The eight Sunshine Millions races (3-6 at Santa Anita; 6-9 at Gulfstream) are packed into a two-hour window, with four to be televised live by NBC from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Eastern. The races also will be shown on HRTV, and there is plenty of wagering action from which to choose. An early $1 pick four covers the Sunshine Millions races at Santa Anita, and the $2 Magna Five also returns Saturday. The is the anchor leg in both bets.

The Sunshine Millions attracted several graded-stakes-caliber runners. Grade 1 winners Lava Man, Buzzards Bay, Leave Me Alone, and Alphabet Kisses race at Santa Anita, while Grade 1 winner Dream of Summer runs at Gulfstream Park. The card in Florida also includes graded-stakes winners Bordonaro, Areyoutalkintome, Bully Bones, House of Fortune, Silver Tree, and Willow O Wisp.

Lava Man is the Classic favorite at a tepid 3-1 on the track's morning line, a price that reflects uncertainty over his current form. Runaway winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup last summer, Lava Man tailed off in fall, losing the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup by 45 lengths, followed by an 11th-place finish in the Japan Cup Dirt.

"I'd be lying if I said we are not a little concerned after his last two efforts," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "But watching him train every morning, it sure seems like the fire is still alive in him, and in my mind, I've got two legitimate excuses."

Lava Man lost his composure when he shipped early to Belmont. He washed out in the paddock and bled in the race. Things were not any better in Japan, where a deep, sandy track aggravated a brewing foot problem.

"Finally, something blew out the bottom of his frog," O'Neill said.

If he reproduces last summer's form, Lava Man can win the 1 1/8-mile Classic. O'Neill said, "We've got no excuses."

At least, none he can control. Unfortunately for Lava Man, the pace scenario does not favor him. The field is loaded with speed and includes front-runners Wild Buddy, Desert Boom, Proud Tower Too, Trickey Trevor, and McCann's Mojave.

The pace scenario bodes well for Buzzards Bay, trained by Ron Ellis.

"Four or five of those horses can really smoke," Ellis said. "We'd like to sit fourth or fifth."

Winner of the Santa Anita Derby last year, Buzzards Bay was later sold at auction and purchased by Gary Broad. The Sunshine Classic is the colt's third start since the sale.

"The two races I ran him in were with this race in mind," Ellis said, and the only concern is a disappointing Dec. 26 turf race by Buzzards Bay. "I thought he was a cinch going in, and I have no excuse other than the grass," said Ellis. Garrett Gomez was aboard Buzzards Bay in that race, and, according to Ellis, Gomez "said he just didn't fire."

Buzzards Bay has worked super since, and will race on the Santa Anita main track for the first time since a 30-1 upset last spring in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

Whos Crying Now is the best Florida-bred shipper in the Classic, though his career-best Beyer Figure is only 99. The first three winners of the Sunshine Millions Classic earned Beyer Figures of 107.

The field also includes Texcess, B. B. Best, Supervisor, Wild Buddy, Desert Boom, Super Strut, and also-eligibles Calkins Road and Always Noble. The Classic is race 6.

Earlier at Santa Anita, Da Stoops will try to win the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash (race 3), a six-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds that is loaded with speed. Da Stoops's main rival is the romping debut winner Plagiarist. Both are California-breds; the best Florida-breds are the Florida shippers In Summation and Changing Weather.

Western Hemisphere and Leave Me Alone stand out in the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Filly-Mare Sprint (race 4) at six furlongs. Leave Me Alone also will enter the Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap on Sunday, and if she goes there, then Western Hemisphere becomes a virtual lock. The top two choices are California-breds; the only Florida-bred is locally based Abounding Truth. Only one starter, the streaking Hot Storm, ships from out of state.

Moscow Burning, another California-bred, will be a short price in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Filly-Mare Turf (race 5) at 1 1/4 miles. Valentine Dancer is trying to win the race for the third straight year, this time without a prep race. Her three most recent starts last summer were dreadful. The leading Florida-breds are outsiders Tiger Belle and likely pacesetter Midwife.

At Gulfstream Park, California-bred shipper Bordonaro is the horse to beat in the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint (Gulfstream's race 6) at six furlongs; Florida-breds Bully Bones and Knights Templar figure prominently in the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Oaks (race 7) for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs.

California-bred shippers Dream of Summer and House of Fortune stand out in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff (race 8) at 1 1/16 miles, and Florida-bred Silver Tree will try to provide a fitting finale for retiring jockey Jerry Bailey in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf (race 9) at 1 1/2 miles. Florida-bred, California-raced shipper Willow O Wisp is the value in the field.

Sunshine Millions

Races restricted to Florida- and California-breds

OaksGulfstream$250,0006 furlongs3:20 pm12:20 p.m.
Key horses: Bully Bones, Knights Templar, Windy
DashSanta Anita250,0006 furlongs3:5012:50
Key horses: Da Stoops, In Summation, Plagiarist
SprintGulfstream300,0006 furlongs4:051:05
Key horses: Bordonaro, Thor's Echo, Areyoutalkintome
FM SprintSanta Anita250,0006 furlongs4:201:40
Key horses: Alphabet Kisses, Leave Me Alone, Western Hemisphere
TurfGulfstream500,0001 1/8 miles (T)4:451:45
Key horses: Silver Tree, Willow O Wisp, Captain Squire
FM TurfSanta Anita500,0001 1/8 miles (T)5:052:05
Key horses: Valentine Dancer, Moscow Burning, Dancing General
DistaffGulfstream500,0001 1/16 miles5:202:20
Key horses: House of Fortune, Dream of Summer, Sweet Lips
ClassicSanta Anita1,000,0001 1/8 miles5:452:45
Key horses: Lava Man, Buzzards Bay, Whos Crying Now

The field

Sunshine Millions Classic
Purse: $1,000,000; 1 1/8 miles

1Texcess (CA)K. Desormeaux12020-1
2Lava Man (CA)C. Nakatani1222-1
3B. B. Best (FL)V. Espinoza12030-1
4Supervisor (FL)T. Baze12215-1
5Wild Buddy (FL)A. Gryder12220-1
6Whos Crying Now (FL)C. Velasquez12215-1
7Desert Boom (CA)R. Gonzalez12212-1
8Super Strut (CA)D. Flores12212-1
9Proud Tower Too (CA)D. Cohen12010-1
10Buzzards Bay (FL)G. Gomez1207-2
11Trickey Trevor (FL)R. Baze1228-1
12McCann's Mojave (CA)J. Valdivia1226-1
Also eligible:
13Calkins Road (CA)J. Santiago12230-1
14Always Noble (FL)J. Santiago12230-1

* Blinkers on: B. B. Best
* Odds by Michael Hammersly
* Television: Saturday, 4:30-6 p.m. (Eastern), NBC