01/23/2003 12:00AM

A hiccup in the sun (rah rah?)


ARCADIA, Calif. - Take your pick:

The Sunshine Millions is a brilliant marketing device that offers eight attractive betting fields filling two hours of non-stop excitement, providing owners, breeders, trainers, and jockeys in California and Florida with unprecedented purse opportunities while entertaining fans at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita Park with a whiz-bang array of eye-popping attractions and bringing much of the action into the homes of sports fans everywhere with a valuable chunk of network television air time.

Or . . .

The Sunshine Millions is an overpriced company picnic, raised from the ashes of an already failed concept that has diverted large amounts of promotional funds and creative energy into a one-shot experiment with vaguely outlined goals, while at the same time diluting the value of existing, established products in favor of subsidizing a second-rate level of competition that was not attractive enough on its own merits to secure the interest of commercial television.

But that would be nit-picking. So let's forget for a moment that it will cost $400,000 to pay for the live, Sunshine Millions infomercial on NBC (an amount covered by ad revenue). Don't worry about the draining effect on such traditional Santa Anita races as the San Antonio Handicap, San Vicente Stakes, Palos Verdes Handicap, and Santa Monica Handicap, each of them scheduled close to a Sunshine Millions counterpart.

And we can always pretend that there is a natural, virulent rivalry between the California and Florida Thoroughbred industries, even though none exists. It is enough to understand that Magna Entertainment Corp. owns both Santa Anita and Gulfstream, and that two years ago the same promotion, underfunded and disorganized, was a fizzled embarrassment called the Super Track Series.

It's back. Back with both barrels blazing. There will be cheerleaders and bikini contests (heat lamps permitting) and skydivers and marching bands. Santa Anita Park gets mariachis and Gulfstream gets America and their horse with no name (California wins that one). But Gulfstream gets a samba line - look out, seniors! - while Santa Anita will be subjected to a pack of over-amped deejays (score one for Florida).

Jay Cohen, Santa Anita's horn blower, has a featured role midway through the day with the performance of a special "California fanfare." Rumor has it that Cohen will be playing a medley of appropriately themed tunes, including "Sunshine on My Shoulder," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone."

(And she's always gone too long . . .)

K.C. and the Sunshine Band were busy.

Without a doubt, the day will be a blast - at least at Santa Anita, where the "sunshine" part of the agreement is being honored.

"I just heard there are ice warnings here tonight," said Ian Jory, a California trainer who was bedded down at Gulfstream Park with Continental Red, among the favorites for the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic.

"But that's okay," Jory added. "At least there won't be the usual advantage that the Florida horses have in humid weather."

Jory knows what it takes to win a million-dollar event. He did it with Best Pal, a California boy, in the 1990 Hollywood Futurity, which was a race without statebred restrictions. And while restricted races have their place, helping to supplement the purse opportunities for local breeding industries, they have done little to encourage the improvement of the breed itself.

Besides, California and Florida breeders already have proven that they can produce world-class horses, even though the Sunshine Millions Classic is short on superstars. Consider it an historical hiccup.

Just imagine, at any given time, a Florida lineup that could include Dr. Fager, Affirmed, Holy Bull, Skip Away, Precisionist, or Foolish Pleasure, or a California inventory that could draw from Swaps, Tiznow, Best Pal, Ancient Title, Quicken Tree, or Snow Chief. All of those horses won everywhere.

The last great California-Florida confrontation began in 1997 and lasted until 1999. No one who watched Free House and Silver Charm hook up in races like the Santa Anita Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, and the Santa Anita Handicap will ever forget. In fact, of the entire registered North American Thoroughbred foal crop of 1994 - a total of 35,340 horses - only two of them were major stakes winners at ages 2, 3, 4, and 5: California's Free House and Florida's Silver Charm.

There is plenty to cheer about without a Sunshine Millions, and great events with built-in fan acceptance that could benefit from the same type of promotional outburst. Will a Sunshine Millions draw the same crowd that might turn out to see a $4 million Santa Anita Handicap, fueled by a purse and advertising that lives up to its historical significance. It would be nice to find out.

At the end of the day, at least these days, the point is putting fans in the stands, which is why the Sunshine Millions is getting a free pass the first time around, and cooperation from groups across the board.

"What we've got to improve is handle and attendance," said Ed Halpern, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers Association. "If we don't do that awfully quickly, we could be in trouble.

"That's why I think it's worth the try."