01/19/2009 12:00AM

Cure for mid-winter blues


Despite well-publicized financial difficulties that have impacted Frank Stronach's racetrack holdings, no one can accuse him of being afraid to try new ideas.

There is the Magna 5, which links five races from three or more of his tracks in south Florida, Southern California, Maryland and Northern California in a multi-race wager that takes about an hour to complete.

There is the innovative super high five, which requires players to pick the top five finishers in a single race - usually the last race at Stronach's Santa Anita Park. Because this bet offers no consolation payoff and only can be won when a ticket is sold with the top five finishers in exact order, the wager has a carryover provision when no ticket is sold with the exact order of finish.

Then there is the biggest gamble of all: The well-named Sunshine Millions, a bicoastal mid-winter $3.6 million stakes extravaganza for Florida-breds and California-breds that will have its seventh go-round this Saturday at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita.

Trying to liven up the winter racing season at both of his most important racetracks, Stronach was criticized by many, including me, for taking some horses away from prestigious, established stakes while seemingly trying to create an instant classic at considerable expense.

But give the man credit. His concept of eight stakes with purses of up to $1 million has become exactly what Stronach sought to make it - a mid-winter highlight, an opportunity to focus on the leading Florida- and California-breds in exclusive competition with each other, an event that horseplayers can enjoy and find some potential parimutuel value due to the cross country competition.

The eight races are divided between Gulfstream and Santa Anita and switched from one track to the other in alternating years, and this year's lineup will be:

Santa Anita

* $250,000 Sunshine Millions Oaks, 3-year-old fillies, six furlongs

* $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint, 4-year-olds and up, six furlongs

* $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff, fillies and mares, 1 1/16 miles

* $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf, 4-year-olds and up, 1 1/8 miles on grass

Gulfstream Park

* $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash, 3-year-olds, six furlongs

* $300,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint, 4-year-olds and up, six furlongs

* $500,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf, fillies and mares, 1 1/8 miles on grass

* $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic, 4-year-olds and up, 1 1/8 miles

The most reliable trend the past six years has been the domination of Florida-breds in this competition, even in races run on the different tracks that have been in play at Santa Anita in recent years. In fact, Florida-breds have won 31 of the 48 Sunshine Millions races to have been run.

In 2007 Santa Anita conducted its races on a dirt track that was difficult to manicure during the moist winter weather. In 2008 a Cushion Track was in play until it could not handle the rain, and that led to the current Pro Ride track, which has resulted in fast times and which some horses handle better than others.

The current Santa Anita meet, barely a month old, has had its share of wild upsets and shifting track conditions, which helped to produce several pick-six carryovers. That said, jockeys Garrett Gomez, Rafael Bejarano, Joel Rosario, Joe Talamo and Clinton Potts have been riding the main track exceptionally well, while Gomez and Bejarano have been equally dominant on the turf, and trainer Mike Mitchell is scoring at a 30 percent clip.

Gulfstream Park has played to a more consistent tune, with tactical speed serving as trump for a high percentage of dirt races at all distances and a select group of trainers winning a high percentage since opening day, including Ken McPeek, Graham Motion, Wesley Ward, Peter Walder and George Weaver.

Examining the past performances and training moves of most of the Sunshine Million prospective starters, I would recommend a close look at the few horses listed below for each of the eight races. Please also keep in mind that these races will play a significant role in the NTRA/DRF National Handicapping Championship, which is taking place at the Red Rock in Las Vegas on Friday and Saturday.

Sunshine Millions Oaks: Emmy Darling, a John Sadler-trained Florida-bred based in California, won the Grade 3 Sorrento at this distance on the Polytrack at Del Mar last summer and was in against much tougher in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and the Grade 3 Miesque, also on the grass, to close out her 2008 campaign.

Sunshine Millions Sprint: In Summation and Georgie Boy should be tough to handle in this race, which was won last year by Benny the Bull at Gulfstream. Both are Grade 1 winners with solid form over the track. But In Summation is a Florida-bred with more experience at the distance. Devoted Magic, vastly improved, is a fit local winner who can upset.

Sunshine Millions Distaff: Leah's Secret, a Todd Pletcher-trained mare, ran poorly in this race last year at Gulfstream but came around in the fall and has good form on synthetic tracks.

Sunshine Millions Turf: Soldier's Dancer, a consistent graded stakes type from Florida in peak form, has good late speed for this. He must catch another Florida-bred, Presious Passion, a solid front-running winner of several graded turf stakes.

Sunshine Millions Dash: Backbackbackgone, a Florida-bred based in Southern California, has won two minor stakes with very good overall speed. Southern Exchange, also a Florida-bred, failed to stay in longer stakes at Woodbine. He's been freshened and returns to his best distance. You Luckie Mann improved in his Calder finale.

Sunshine Millions F-M Sprint: High Resolve, a Florida-bred with strong form in Northern California, also won for fun at Calder last year, and is the one to beat. Dearest Trickski, trained by Sadler, is a proven graded stakes sprinter nearing retirement.

Sunshine Millions F-M Turf: Julia Tuttle a winner of only one minor stakes, has the most early speed and could light up the tote board.

Sunshine Millions Classic: Delightful Kiss has been in good form since September and won his 2009 debut at a shorter distance with a spirited rally. Atoned had too many second-place finishes in 2008 to trust implicitly here, but his win in the Pegasus last fall and recent workouts suggest a new leaf.