Updated on 09/16/2011 8:54AM

Horsemen embrace idea, but will fans?


ARCADIA, Calif. - Never has there been a series of restricted stakes as lucrative as the $3.6 million Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita on Jan. 25.

California-bred and Florida-bred horses will compete in eight stakes ranging in value from $250,000 to $1 million. No one else is invited. The Kentucky-breds and the European imports that so often dominate racing are shut out.

For many owners of California-breds and Florida-breds, the new series will offer the highest purses their horses will compete for all year. The purses are competitive with other major stakes run at the two tracks, both of which are owned by Magna Entertainment.

Despite the geographic differences and the lack of an established rivalry between the states, there will be no shortage of runners. When the first stage of nominations was announced in early December, there were 326 horses named.

Shortly thereafter, the friendly jabs began to fly.

"I think there will be tremendous competition between the breeders in California and Florida," said Jack Liebau, the president of Magna's California operations and an active owner and breeder. "As a quasi-breeder in California, I'm convinced we're going to beat those guys who think they are superior."

His colleagues in Florida are willing to accept that challenge.

"Florida horsemen think it's great because we think we're going to beat their butts," said Linda Mills, the president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

Others are taking a more conciliatory tone.

Magna Entertainment, better known for its aggressive acquisition of racetracks in recent years, is throwing considerable time - and money - into the Sunshine Millions. The company has added $1.2 million in cash to purses for the program. The two state breeding organizations - the CTBA and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association - and the official horsemen's groups from both states - the Thoroughbred Owners of California and Florida HBPA - have each contributed to the purses.

To reach a wider audience, Magna is negotiating with NBC to televise races from each venue.

Gulfstream Park will host the $1 million Classic over 1 1/8 miles, the $350,000 Filly and Mare Turf over 1 1/8 miles, the $250,000 Filly and Mare Sprint over six furlongs, and the $250,000 Dash for 3-year-olds over seven furlongs.

At Santa Anita, the main race will be the $750,000 Distaff over 1 1/16 miles. The California track will also feature the $500,000 Turf over 1 1/8 miles, the $250,000 Sprint over six furlongs, and the $250,000 Oaks for 3-year-old fillies over seven furlongs.

The program is designed so that each state will have six starters. There is a pre-entry stage Jan. 15. Post positions will be drawn Jan. 20, a full five days in advance of the event, much earlier than normal for such lucrative races.

All of this is designed to increase hype and attract the attention of a betting public that often does not follow the states in which horses are bred.

Racing fans are likely to have heard of Booklet and Sir Bear among the Florida-breds or have seen races involving the California-breds Calkins Road and Continental Red, all candidates for the $1 million Classic. But the fields for the Oaks and the Dash do not include as many well-known runners.

"For Sir Bear, this is the race they want to win this year. It's not the Donn Handicap," said Scott Savin, Gulfstream Park president and general manager, mentioning Gulfstream Park's traditional big race for older handicap horses. "He's pointed at the Sunshine Millions Classic. There are enough standout horses that we should have some horses of note."

Despite their differences, the two states make a good match. Breeders in both states have produced horses capable of winning the nation's best races. The Florida-bred Silver Charm won the 1997 Kentucky Derby. Tiznow, a California-bred, won consecutive runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2000 and 2001.

Each state produces about 4,000 foals annually. More recently, each state won two races at the Great State Challenge at Sam Houston Race Park on Dec. 7.

"Historically, there hasn't been much of a rivalry between Florida and California," said Doug Burge, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. "I think there is the potential to create one with this series."

In other ways, the Sunshine Millions will create odd affiliations. The 2-year-old Atlantic Ocean has been based in California with trainer Bob Baffert throughout her career. She won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies at Turfway Park and Miesque Stakes at Hollywood Park this fall. But as a Florida-bred, she will represent "the other team" if she starts in the Oaks at Santa Anita.

The same situation applies to Madame Pietra, the Florida-bred mare who is based in California but will travel to Gulfstream Park for the Filly and Mare Sprint. She may be a Florida-bred, but Californians would certainly boast of how tough their racing is if she succeeds in that road trip.

Track officials say a concerted effort is being made to sell the event to all fans, through merchandise giveaways and a voucher giveaway mailed to frequent customers.

They admit the series may a difficult sell.

"I think the competition angle will build in the future," Savin said. "I think this is something we can have a lot of fun with."

Magna has tried a team concept event in the past. In March 2001, the company attempted a day of racing pitting horses based at Gulfstream Park against horses based at Santa Anita placed into teams. The event was canceled less than a week before it was to be launched because of a lack of preparation and a lack of support from horsemen. In its place, four $75,000 races were offered at each track as a consolation to owners and trainers.

"People didn't care about L.A. vs. Miami," Liebau said.

Mills said that Magna executives must have learned their lessons with that program's failure. She praised the company for a more thorough approach to the Sunshine Millions and for involving more groups during the year-long planning process.

"It was too late, too much too quick, and it flopped," Mills said of the 2001 program. "I think they've done an excellent job of communicating about the program to the press and horsemen. I really believe it will be something that works."

Liebau said Magna's investment is for the long term as an attempt to draw more customers to the races.

"Magna is committed to generating ontrack attendance, and the best way of capturing the fan is through the ontrack experience," he said. "Your best chance is at a major event. This definitely represents a substantial outlay of funds for Magna and it's viewed as a long-range investment in the industry.

"There's every intention this will be an ongoing event. It doesn't make any sense to go through this effort and not continue it."