01/23/2003 12:00AM

Finding the money to pay top-dollar purses

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To Kent Stirling, the executive director of the horsemen's group in Florida, diverting $600,000 from the purse account at Gulfstream Park toward Saturday's Sunshine Millions card was a no-brainer.

"The way it was structured, it was just way too good to pass up," Stirling said.

To Stirling and his counterpart at the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and to breeders in both states, the Sunshine Millions - a series of eight races restricted to California-breds and Florida-breds with total purses of $3.6 million - will be a net gain. Representatives of all four of the groups said in interviews that they expected to come out ahead at the end of the day, despite each contributing $600,000 to the day's purses.

So where does that leave Magna Entertainment, the vast racing conglomerate that owns the Sunshine Millions's two host tracks, Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park, and whose chairman, Frank Stronach, came up with the idea of the new competition?

About $1.2 million in the hole.

Magna made two $600,000 contributions, one for each of its tracks, money that is coming out of the corporation's operating budget. Magna will receive its cut of the day's wagering and concessions, but that money would normally cover operating expenses for the day, not go directly into purses. As a result, Magna has little chance to make up its contribution through traditional revenue sources.

"I think you can see the big selling point for us here," said Doug Burge, the executive vice president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. "We have a $1.2 million contribution coming out of the track coffers that is going to purses. That's $1.2 million that you would never see ever going to purses without this."

"It's really a gift," said Stirling.

Horsemen, on the other hand, said they expected their cut from betting to be at least $600,000, and horsemen's officials emphasized that their members would be running for far more than they put up.

"It's clearly a net positive because of the amount of dollars coming from the other sources," said John Van de Kamp, the president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, referring to Magna's contribution and the breeders' contributions. "We should do pretty well."

The two breeding associations said that their contributions were funded by shifting money from their existing budgets to the Sunshine Millions races. In California's case, that meant canceling two Cal-bred races at the current Santa Anita meet and cutting the purses of four others, according to Burge.

In Florida, breeders used money from a $1.7 million tax refund they received several years ago, according to Dick Hancock, the executive vice president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association. Hancock said the $600,000 contribution would have "absolutely no impact" on funding for statebred awards in the future. Stronach is a director of the FTBOA.

The Sunshine Millions is being headlined by a $1 million race for 4-year-olds and up. Also on the card is a $750,000 race for fillies and mares 4 and up, as well as a $500,000 turf race. A turf race restricted to fillies and mares offers another $350,000, and the remaining four races have purses of $250,000 each.

Those purses are well in excess of typical purses restricted to statebred runners. At the Cal Cup, the richest purse on the day is $250,000. Statebred days in New York and West Virginia also offer at most $250,000 for their top races, and Maryland and Florida's purses for their top statebred races are only $200,000.

Magna officials and horsemen all said that having a $1 million race made sense in order to properly promote the card.

"In order for us to get the exposure it is right now receiving, I think the $1 million race was very important," said Burge. "And it was for Magna as well. They were adamant that we have at least one $1 million race. And we all agreed."

"In order to make this an event, you have to offer purses of this magnitude," said Jack Liebau, Magna's top California official. "I don't think any of the owners of these horses are disturbed by the purses."

Some shareholders of Magna have complained recently on Internet newsgroups that the company has put far too much money into the promotion of the Sunshine Millions, especially considering that business has been down roughly 10 percent at the Santa Anita meet.

Santa Anita has slashed its marketing budget for everyday racing, but Magna is sparing no expense for Sunshine Millions, with skydivers, cheerleaders, merchandise giveaways, $250,000 mystery mutuel voucher promotions, and beauty contests at both Santa Anita and Gulfstream. Additionally, Magna purchased one hour of air time on NBC-TV to televise three Sunshine races live on Saturday afternoon.

Scott Savin, the president of Gulfstream Park, said that the sale of commercial time on the broadcast had fully paid for the television time. Liebau also emphasized that the track sold a number of sponsorship packages to companies like FedEx and John Deere - companies that already have relationships with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association - and several California and Florida farms.

Magna officials said on Wednesday that they did not know the total cost of the day's events.

"It's a big day, but I think that we all have to realize that in order to get an event of this nature kicked off and to grow into what we hoped to do and to get it - to get the most exposure that is needed - that it takes a substantial expenditure," Liebau said.

Liebau said he was hopeful that 18,000 people would show up at Santa Anita on Saturday, which would be a 50 percent increase over the crowd on the same Saturday last year. Savin said he expected attendance to be up approximately 10 to 15 percent at Gulfstream.

Liebau also said that Magna was committed to putting on the Sunshine Millions every year, in part because of the enormous outlays to put on the inaugural event.

"I don't think that there's any way that we could justify the day as a one-shot thing," Liebau said.