Updated on 01/26/2012 4:58PM

Hovdey: Sunshine Millions still a bright show

Shigeki Kikkawa
Caracortado, with Rafael Bejarano riding, wins the Daytona.

Give Santa Anita Park management credit for rallying in spite of its half of the Sunshine Millions racing program being yanked from its menu of attractions. What is now being offered on Saturday in Arcadia is still very sunshiny, and sort of milliony.

The Sunshine Millions went nine years at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park as a collection of events for products of the California and Florida breeding industries, and even if the idea was a promotional contrivance – both tracks sharing a common ownership and a shot at a warm winter – there was compelling sport along the way, and some very good horses ended up earning fat paydays.

In its role in offering advice and giving consent regarding purse contracts, the Thoroughbred Owners of California decided the Santa Anita share of the Sunshine Millions money could be better spent. So Florida was cut adrift. As a result there will be six Sunshine Millions events at Gulfstream on Saturday for Florida-breds, topped by the $400,000 Sunshine Millions Classic.

Out West, first-year Santa Anita marketing chief Chris Quinn was left with an established logo and a large hole where a racing program used to live. Rick Hammerle’s racing department took care of its end, batching the top-line Santa Monica Stakes – led by La Brea winner Teddy’s Proimise – and the Santa Ysabel Stakes – in which Starlet Stakes one-two finishers Killer Graces and Charm the Maker renew their budding feud – with three $100,000 stakes for Cal-breds. Total purses on the 10-race card come to $962,000, which is not a million, but close.

“The Sunshine Millions brand itself is still a top five day on our racing calendar,” Quinn said. “So instead of reinventing that brand and starting over we just kept it. In a way, it’s always been more about entertainment than it was about racing.”

Entertainment being in the eye of the entertained, I will defer to patrons who come to the track for bikini pageants, blaring Djs, and food trucks, and spend more time with those engaged by a guaranteed $250,000 pick pix pool, chased by who knows how much and including three of the five stakes races.

Earlier in the card, though, the heavyweights of the day will go forth in the Sensational Star at 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course. The race is named for the bare-knuckled Cal-bred brawler of the late 1980’s who was trained by Bill Spawr and won most of the best sprints on the circuit.

Compari, the pride of the San Joaquin Valley, won the Sensational Star in 2010, along with the graded Arcadia Handicap and two other Cal-bred stakes, but he’s got some age on him now at 6 while in the midst of a comeback that has included two solid tries, including an allowance win at a mile on Jan. 5.

For all Compari’s accomplishments, top billing will go to Caracortado, perhaps the best Cal-bred in training and the defending champion of the Sunshine Millions Turf. Of course, being a Cal-bred, Caracortado is no longer eligible to defend his title in Saturday’s version of the race at Gulfstream. But there’s nothing to say he’d want to anyway, since the Florida race is worth only $150,000 compared with $100,000 for the Sensational Star.

As it turns out, trainer and part-owner Mike Machowsky is in no mood to be shipping his durable gelding hither and yon this season, what with the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint scheduled to be run over the Sensational Star course and distance 10 months down the line. Machowsky laughed when it was suggested such plans tend to make dieties chuckle.

“You mean with a horse? Yeah,” he said. “But it’s worth looking forward to. I’d been wanting to sprint him down the hill for awhile, and he seems to like it just fine.”

The trainer was referring to Caracortado’s last-to-first score in the Daytona Handicap on Jan. 8. There were only four in the field that day – as opposed to a likely 14 in the BC Turf Sprint – so at least the eight set for the Sensational Star will have a more realistic feel.

“The important thing is that he’s aging well,“ Machowsky said, “Time’s done him good. He’s put on weight and blossomed. A gelding will usually age better than a colt anyway – not get too heavy, stay more focused. If you keep a gelding going too long they can just get tired of it, but I’d have to say the way Caracortado is going he could still be at this level when he’s 6.”

The level is pretty darned good. In addition to his Sunshine Millions hit, when the total purse was $300,000, this son of Cat Dreams won the Del Mar Mile in 2011, Robert Lewis Stakes in 2010 and the California Breeders’ Champion Stakes in late 2009. Caracortado’s might-have-beens are impressive as well, with narrow losses in the Kilroe Mile and the Shoemaker Mile.

“We’ve had offers to go a lot of places with him,” Machowsky added. “Dubai for the sprints over there, even Royal Ascot. But with the Breeders’ Cup at home I think it would be great if we can give that our best shot. Besides, I don’t want to have to buy a top hat.”

[SANTA ANITA: Watch video previews and see Saturday's full card live]