01/21/2008 12:00AM

Millions up for grabs


Handicapping the Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita is a challenge in any year, but the trouble endured by Santa Anita’s Cushion Track this winter certainly adds more uncertainty to the task.

It may be a tad too early to stage a super-rich gathering of stakes on both coasts involving so many horses making their first start of the new season. In other words, any horse that had an active campaign in 2007 might not be ready for a top effort so soon, especially if other rich targets are in the 2008 game plan.

Unfamiliarity also is an issue, as several Western-based horses in the four Sunshine Millions races at Gulfstream Park and several Eastern-based horses in the four Sunshine Millions races at Santa Anita will be racing on new surfaces 3,000 miles from home. Moreover, there is a real, although remote possibility that the four Sunshine Millions stakes scheduled for Santa Anita might have to be moved, perhaps to Golden Gate Fields in Northern California. This could occur if a serious rainstorm were to be forecast late in the week that would mess up the Cushion Track.

The Cushion Track we have seen since heavy rains drowned out racing at Santa Anita for the first weekend of 2008 is another factor to contemplate. Santa Anita’s Cushion Track has turned into an interstate highway – a glib, extremely fast surface that has been the forum for numerous track records and wild upsets.

While all of the recent records may have to be treated with asterisks when Cushion Track is stabilized by the addition of Pro-Ride brand polymers (to assist drainage) later in the month, it is simple fact that some horses love to run on hard surfaces while others will not handle it anymore than those that struggle in mud.

Beyond all of these concerns, the Sunshine Millions menu has eight intriguing races that might be best approached using two prominent handicapping realities.

* Horses with strong form in graded stakes deserve an edge over horses that have toiled mostly in races restricted by state affiliation.

* Horses shipped 3,000 miles to run in specific Sunshine Millions stakes deserve a long look against the horses based on the familiar local surface.

A good example of this can be found in last year’s most surprising Sunshine Millions result: The victory by Northern California-based McCann’s Mojave in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream when he could have run in other stakes a week earlier or a week later, much closer to home.

Now 8 years old, McCann’s Mojave is back in this year’s Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita. Of equal import, we still can learn from his 2007 upset by noting that he flashed considerable improvement prior to that score in two late-season 2006 stakes.

This year, several intriguing horses have shipped cross country, and several flashed improvement in December or January. Below are some of the horses in each race with those positive characteristics.

The $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint (Gulfstream, six furlongs on dirt): While Benny the Bull and Mach Ride have established graded stakes sprint form, Bushwacker is a California based Florida-bred who improved to win the Grade 3 Vernon Underwood Stakes at Hollywood wire to wire last month. High Standards returned from a layoff to upset an allowance race at Hollywood on Dec. 21, and Tropic Storm, a Santa Anita allowance winner Jan. 4, is lightly raced and rapidly improving.

The $250,000 Sunshine Millions Oaks (Gulfstream, 3-year-old fillies, six furlongs on dirt): Steve Asmussen’s Blitzing tired in the Spinaway at Saratoga last summer, but seemed much improved when she won a $100,000 stakes at the Fair Grounds last month. Sindy Jacobson, a lightly raced California-based Florida-bred, was a sharp second in a seven-furlong stakes at Hollywood in Novembr for high-percentage California trainer John Sadler.

The $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff (Gulfstream, fillies and mares, 1 1/8 miles on dirt): Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Ginger Punch looks to be a formidable favorite over a moderate group, but this is her first outing of 2008 and some caution is advised at unplayable odds.

The $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf (Gulfstream, 4-year-olds and up, 1 1/8 miles): The Todd Pletcher-trained duo of Icy Atlantic and Ruff and Ready figure to contend in a wide-open race, but of the two, Ruff and Ready may be the better price despite noticeable improvement winning over the course. War Monger, a lightly raced Billy Mott trainee, also is improving, while Add Heat ships from California after good performances on turf and synthetic tracks.

The $300,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint (Santa Anita, six furlongs, Cushion Track): Several locally based horses with good form are in the field, including recent stakes winners Lady Gamer and Dearest Trickski. But, Cher Ami won a stakes at Calder Dec. 29 and has trained well for this, and Coli Bear, a consistent winner last year in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland, ships with fast workouts on a synthetic training track.

The $500,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf (Santa Anita, 1 1/8 miles): Nashoba’s Key, seeking her eighth victory in nine career starts, looks formidable, but competition may come from Placid Lake, who is seeking her fifth straight turf win in her first try at this distance, and Quite a Bride, a Mott trainee with nine turf wins, including a recent stakes at Gulfstream. Locally based Gentle Charmer is much improved and stretches out in distance again.

The $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash (Santa Anita, 3-year-olds, six furlongs, Cushion Track): Bob Black Jack made bids against Into Mischief and Massive Drama in the Hollywood Preview Nov. 22 and seemed stronger when he won the Cal Breeders’ Stakes here on Dec. 26. Little Nick flashed speed in Saratoga stakes last summer. He’s been freshened and ships from Gulfstream with a sharp series of workouts. Winsome Charm is lightly raced and improving for trainer Jeff Mullins. Georgie Boy has not raced since winning the Del Mar Futurity Sept. 5 and may be vulnerable, but also has good workouts to consider.

The $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic (Santa Anita, 1 1/8 miles, Cushion Track): Diamond Stripes is a Grade 2 stakes winner with three good tries in Grade 1s. He had six relatively long workouts in Florida for this. Electrify won a Grade 3 stakes last month at Calder and is 3 for 5 at 1 1/8 miles. Has an improving profile similar to last year’s winner, McCann’s Mojave. Gottcha Gold was third in 2007 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and beat Lawyer Ron last summer. Has big speed in a field loaded with speed. Nothing wrong with McCann’s Mojave, but this is a much deeper field than he beat in 2007 and the odds will be much lower.