01/22/2004 1:00AM

Fat purses link talent on two coasts

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Peace Rules is the early favorite in the $1 million Sunshine Classic at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Four plus four equals $3.6 million on Saturday at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park, where a lucrative eight-race series called the Sunshine Millions features many of the top horses bred in California and Florida.

Feel the heat? Twelve older horses in the $1 million Classic certainly will, because the 1 1/8-mile dirt race is loaded with speed. The gaggle of front-runners includes Grade 1 winner Peace Rules, the early favorite; graded stakes winners Excessivepleasure and Standard Setter; and speedsters Hot Market and Excess Summer. Midas Eyes entered, but is expected to scratch.

The $1 million is the centerpiece of four Sunshine Millions races on a 10-race card at Santa Anita; two $500,000 races - the Distaff and Turf - head four Sunshine Millions races on the Gulfstream card. The Sunshine Millions races are restricted to horses bred in California and Florida, and will be run during a two-hour window beginning at 12:45 p.m. Pacific, 3:45 Eastern. NBC will televise the races live nationally from 1 p.m. to 3p.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern.

Beyond providing a generous payday for California- and Florida-bred runners, the Sunshine Millions showcases the crown jewels of Magna Entertainment Corp.'s racetrack empire - Santa Anita and Gulfstream. Magna chairman Frank Stronach has been a driving force behind the Sunshine Millions concept, now in its second year.

The $3.6 million purse total is funded through agreements arranged by owners' and breeders' organizations in California and Florida, with another $1.2 million kicked in by Magna. The Classic moves back and forth between the two tracks, and is held this year at Santa Anita, where director of racing Mike Harlow described the event as "an unprecedented concept, with contributions by Magna and the owner and breeder associations insuring the success of the day."

Florida-bred runners won seven of the eight races in 2003, and expectations are for similar results Saturday. Florida-bred runners based in California are considered leading contenders in three of the races at Santa Anita - Peace Rules (Classic), Madame Pietra (Filly and Mare Sprint), and Ice Wynnd Fire (Dash). The only California-bred favored at Gulfstream Park is Silent Sighs (Oaks).

An unusual aspect of the Sunshine Millions is its isolation. The program is not the culmination of a series of races, nor is it a prelude to races ahead. The main appeal is that the Sunshine Millions are good races on which to wager.

Seven horses from Florida shipped this week to Santa Anita; 12 horses from California shipped to Florida. Their chances depend not on where they were bred, but rather how fast they can run.

Except for two Gulfstream races with just seven runners (Sprint) and six runners (Oaks), the races attracted full fields. Purses were a serious incentive. Two races are valued at $250,000, the Oaks at Gulfstream and the Dash at Santa Anita, and two at $300,000, the Sprint at Gulfstream and the Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita. Three have purses of $500,000: and the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita and the Distaff and Turf at Gulfstream.

The Bobby Frankel-trained Peace Rules is the marquee horse of the Sunshine Millions program. A multiple Grade 1 winner with six victories and earnings of more than $2 million from 13 starts, his chances in the Classic depend on how he and jockey Jerry Bailey cope with the abundant speed in the field. Peace Rules is a front-runner whose chances could be compromised, as they were in the Breeders' Cup Mile, by the presence of other speed. Southern Image scored an upset in the Grade 1 Malibu at seven furlongs, and his rating ability could allow lead to a good trip. Continental Red is the main California hope. Though he is most effective on grass, his style may be flattered by the pace. Grey Memo and White Buck will be rolling from behind.

Proud Man is favored in the $500,000 Turf at 1 1/8 miles, following a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Appleton Handicap on Jan. 4. While the Florida-bred Proud Man has an edge in current condition, the class of the field may be Florida-bred comebacker Man From Wicklow, a Grade 1 winner racing for the first time since April.

Valentine Dancer, a top California-bred miler, will try to stretch her stamina to 1 1/8 miles in the Filly and Mare Turf. Her main rivals include California-bred Moscow Burning and Florida-breds Atlantic Ocean, Fencelineneighbor, and Lost Appeal.

Florida-bred Pesci will be tested for class when she makes the third start of her career in the $500,000 Distaff at 1 1/16 miles. Owned in part by actor Joe Pesci, the 2-for-2 Pesci meets a group that includes graded stakes winners Smok'n Frolic and House Party. Royally Chosen is the only California-bred in the field.

Florida-breds Madame Pietra and Barbara O'Brien are the leading contenders in the six-furlong Filly and Mare Sprint. They face California-breds Bear Fan and Super High. Only seven runners, led by Florida-bred Shake You Down, entered the six-furlong Sprint. Shake You Down faces Valid Video and Green Team, the only California-bred. Ice Wynnd Fire will be heavily favored in the six-furlong Dash for 3-year-olds, and Silent Sighs will be favored over Wacky Patty in the six-furlongs Oaks for 3-year-old fillies.