Updated on 09/17/2011 1:56PM

Millions format needs a tuneup


LAS VEGAS - I understand the criticism of some aspects of the Sunshine Million, which had its second running Saturday at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park. The wisdom of allocating $3.6 million in purse money to eight stakes races restricted to California- and Florida-breds can be questioned, especially at a time when a purse cut at Santa Anita appears imminent. It is also fair to wonder whether the creation of the eight Sunshine Millions stakes races has had a negative impact on already lucrative and well-established stakes with rich histories, such as the San Antonio, the Palos Verdes, the Strub, and the Donn Handicap.

However, I love the idea of a big race day at this time of the year comprising full and well-matched fields of good horses.

Now, if the Sunshine Millions had some plastic surgery, it could really become something. First, the basic premise of a contest between Florida-breds and California-breds has to go, because as was proven again on Saturday, this really isn't much of a contest at all. Instead, the battle should be between horses stabled at Santa Anita versus horses stabled at Gulfstream Park. This would immediately boost the quality of the Sunshine Millions by opening it up to horses bred in Kentucky and any other state, or country, for that matter, and would inject a little East-West debate back into the game. There hasn't been a really good East versus West rivalry in racing since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, and such rivalries never fail to stir the passions of racing fans.

Moreover, the established races that may have seen some quality siphoned from them because of the new Sunshine Millions races should be incorporated into the Sunshine Millions. For example, the Donn should be the Sunshine Millions Classic when it is run next year at Gulfstream Park, and the year after that, when it is run at Santa Anita again, the San Antonio should be the Sunshine Millions Classic. In addition, the existing purse of a race like the Donn, which, at $500,000, is already rich, could become spectacular when supplemented with some of the money already allocated to the Sunshine Millions. The "Sunshine Millions Donn Classic" could reach a value of $1 million, or even $1.5 million.

In any event, performances in three of Saturday's Sunshine Millions events in particular impressed me, starting with the Ocala Stud Oaks at Gulfstream. Normally, when a 1-5 shot wins by only a neck as Silent Sighs did in this instance, the inclination is to pick the effort apart to expose its flaws. Not this time. Despite being a prohibitive favorite, Silent Sighs had every reason to lose, and was, in fact, as impressive a neck winner as you'll see. She had a troubled start, and that cost her command of the pace that figured to be hers. Then, Silent Sighs was completely boxed in on the rail from the top of the stretch to midstretch, at which point her opponents could no longer run fast enough to keep her bottled up. Once Silent Sighs saw daylight, she surged impressively to be up in time. In the end, Silent Sighs won this $250,000 race after really running for only about a sixteenth of a mile.

In the next race at Gulfstream, the Padua Stables Sprint, Shake You Down walked his beat at 3-5 to maintain his ranking as one of the best six-furlong horses in the East. But, the performance of third-place finisher Valid Video added weight to the suspicion that he will be one of the better sprinters in the East this year. Valid Video, who last summer smoked eventual Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Cajun Beat in Calder's Carry Back, and then followed with a win in the Grade 1 King's Bishop at Saratoga, was making his first start since a poor effort in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. He showed some rust early, dropping uncharacteristically far off the early pace, but made an eye-catching wide move around the far turn before understandably running out of gas late. This race will do Valid Video a lot of good, and he will be formidable from here on if he stays healthy.

The Sunshine Millions finale, the Barretts/C.T.B.A. Classic, had a favorite in Peace Rules whose odds of even money seemed ridiculously low considering there was a ton of speed entered. He also had never shown the ability to close, and his barn has not been winning at nearly the clip that it usually does. Sure enough, Peace Rules never threatened at any point, and finished a soundly beaten fourth.

Southern Image, on the other hand, had previously shown the ability to close. Yet, Victor Espinoza, in an excellent ride, had him forwardly placed, so that when the time came for Southern Image to rally, his job was made all the easier. Indeed, Southern Image powered to a decisive victory over Excess Summer, who ran well to be easily second-best after setting a fast and pressured pace.