01/23/2003 1:00AM

Florida owns quantity and quality edge


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Any way you size it up, Team Florida figures to win the $350,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf.

From a quantity standpoint, eight of the 12 starters in the 1 1/8-mile race are Florida-breds. And quality-wise, the two best horses in the field appear to be Cellars Shiraz and Stay Forever, both Florida-breds, whose running styles complement each other perfectly. One of them should land in the other in the winner's circle no matter how the race sets up.

Cellars Shiraz was the queen of south Florida's 3-year-old turf fillies in 2002, winning all five of her grass starts in the area, including both the Via Borghese and Herecomesthebride stakes over the Gulfstream course. The only fault one might find with Cellars Shiraz's record is the fact she has yet to beat older horses.

"It will be interesting to see how she does against older horses this year," said trainer Bill Cesare, who has pointed Cellars Shiraz for the Sunshine Millions since she closed out her 3-year-old campaign with an easy victory in Calder's Frances A. Genter Stakes.

"She may not win them all," he said. "But believe me she's going to win more than her share."

Cellars Shiraz does her best running close to the pace, although she did alter tactics and come from a bit further back than usual to win the Genter.

There is plenty of speed in the Filly and Mare Turf, and that suits trainer Marty Wolfson fine when it comes to his stretch-running Stay Forever.

Stay Forever won her first four starts last year after being sidelined nearly 20 months with an injured tendon. She suffered her only defeat of the year in her 2002 finale, finishing a troubled third, beaten a length by Miesque's Approval, in the Bonnie Heath Turf Handicap. Miesque's Approval will be one of the favorites later Saturday, in the Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita.

"She got into trouble or I think she would have beaten the boys in her last start," said Wolfson. "And she won't be facing boys on Saturday. It looks like there is a ton of speed in the field, so the race should set up well for her."

Jose Santos will ride Stay Forever for the first time while Eibar Coa retains his usual seat aboard Cellars Shiraz.

Lush Soldier, whose owner-breeder John Franks is sponsoring the race, is also a member of Team Florida, along with Maliziosa, Jennasietta, Libretto, Bay Street Gal, and Company B.

Lil Sister Stich, a winner of three of her last four starts, including the Cal Cup Distaff Handicap, tops the California contingent. Trained by Doug O'Neill, Lil Sister Stich will be stretching out around two turns for the first time since Aug. 1, although she did win her only previous start at 1 1/8 miles.

Elaine's Angel, Serene in Seattle, and Top of Our Game round out Team California.