01/09/2003 12:00AM

Excitement is objective of Millions


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - New kid in town.

Interest is running high in the $3.6 million dollar Sunshine Millions, a fresh new approach to creating a special day for racing on Jan. 25. Essentially it is a program of eight races for horses bred in Florida and California. The competition between the two states will be played out in four races at Gulfstream and four at Santa Anita, topped by the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic for 4-year-olds and up at nine furlongs at Gulfstream.

"We want to get some new excitement into racing," said Frank Stronach, chairman of Magna Entertainment Corp., owners of Gulfstream, Santa Anita, and other tracks throughout the United States. "One way to do that is through competition, and that is the basis of this concept."

To maximize participation in his proposal, Stronach approached breeders and owners organizations in Florida and California.

"I told them that this would be a good way to interest people in buying horses bred in the two states," Stronach pointed out. "They saw the possibilities and have joined us in sponsorship of the program."

Another entity to see favorable possibilities in the Sunshine Millions concept is the National Broadcasting Company, the network that televises the Breeders' Cup. NBC is organizing comprehensive coverage of the Sunshine Millions highlights.

Perhaps the key group to support the initiative is the horsemen, and they have signaled their approval with a barrage of 300 nominations.

"It looks like we'll have some very competitive racing," Stronach said.

"The racing secretaries at the two tracks chose the date as a time when not much else in racing is taking place. It is also a good starting time for horses who have been freshening. We'll probably learn a lot from the first running to improve our presentations in the future. We want the Sunshine Millions to become a major event."

Hero's Tribute one to watch

The $500,000 Donn Handicap, newly positioned on Feb. 22 after a lengthy run being held earlier in the month, has developed into one of the premier handicaps, earning its winner considerable stature and prestige. The major prep for the Donn, now known as the Hal's Hope in honor of the only horse to ever win both the Florida Derby and Gulf-stream Park Handicap, has also gained in stature.

It could have one of the most attractive renewals Saturday with the appearance of such hard-hitting horses as Dream Run, Hail the Chief, Hero's Tribute, Saint Verre, and Windsor Castle.

Hero's Tribute deserves particular attention, for he has apparently matured into a formidable handicap horse. A son of 1993 Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero, Hero's Tribute was a $150,000 Keeneland yearling purchase by John Oxley. He was a 3-year-old in 2001 when Oxley's horse Monarchos won the Kentucky Derby, but he was slow to learn his lessons and his form was irregular.

"My wife, Donna, worked with Hero's Tribute last season, emphasizing consistency of performance," trainer John Ward Jr. said. "Eventually, he seemed to get the message, and his form last fall was quite good. He won the Black Tie Affair Handicap at Arlington Park on Breeders' Cup Day, and his race in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs was very good. He has had some time off since the Clark, and we expect him to run well in the Hal's Hope."