Updated on 09/17/2011 10:48AM

Millions must adopt changes


NEW YORK - By almost every measure, Saturday's Sunshine Millions was a success. Attendance at Gulfstream Park was 18,719, about 4,000 more than was hoped for, while the attendance of 17,108 at Santa Anita was right about what was expected. The racing was good, competitive, and entertaining. Four of the eight races were decided by a half-length or less, and the average win payoff was slightly more than $9. And, the event gave racing people something to talk about at a time of year when the only big racing event people really talk about, the Kentucky Derby, is still more than three months away.

Without question, the Sunshine Millions earned a repeat engagement next year. But, if the Sunshine Millions is to have legs beyond that, some changes need to be made.

As it has been presented, the Sunshine Millions is a "competition" between California-breds and Florida-breds. In practice, this competition is biased from the start. Florida-breds make the vast majority of their starts against open company, because there are hardly any races carded that are restricted to Florida-breds. Meanwhile, California-breds make the vast majority of their starts in races restricted to California-breds, because there are so many races like that available to them. Because California-breds have so many opportunities to run in restricted races and Florida-breds don't, Florida-breds are always going to have an advantage in a competition like this.

Truth be told, no one except for a tiny group of breeders cares that Florida-breds outscored California-breds 56-16 on Saturday. Calling this "competition" is painfully contrived.

But the biggest problem in restricting the Sunshine Millions to California-breds and Florida-breds is that it limits the sources for top horseflesh. Granted, Florida and California have been the birthplaces of some of the greatest Thoroughbreds. But, one of the reasons why the NTRA Great State Challenge, which was only born last month, has a substantial advantage over the Sunshine Millions is that the Great State Challenge welcomes a top horse who was bred in Kentucky, Maryland, and other states. By restricting itself to only two sources, the Sunshine Millions is limiting its chances to attract a really good or even great horse. And it takes that really good or great horse to help establish a series like the Sunshine Millions.

One solution could be to open up the competition and make it Team Gulfstream vs. Team Santa Anita. All horses stabled at Gulfstream and Palm Beach Downs by a certain date would be eligible for Team Gulfstream, regardless of where the horse was foaled. Likewise, all horses stabled at Santa Anita (and perhaps Hollywood Park) would be eligible to represent Team Santa Anita. By doing this, the Sunshine Millions would now be open to almost every top horse in training. Moreover, racing fans who have no rooting interests in state breeding programs may well become passionate about rooting for the team representing their favorite winter racetrack.

Of course, one drawback to this idea is the negative impact it could have on established races run close to event day, like the Santa Monica, which was also run on Saturday at Santa Anita, or Sunday's Palos Verdes, or this weekend's Strub and San Antonio. Perhaps the answer is incorporating these races into the series, and rewarding them with healthy purse boosts from the money that was earmarked for the races they would be replacing.

One other thing must be done. If the Sunshine Millions is on national television next year, the telecast has to run long enough to show every race in the series. I know it's easy for me to spend Frank Stronach's money, and it was his money that bought the hour on NBC on Saturday. But, showing only three of the eight races didn't do right by racing fans, and didn't do right by this fledgling series, either.

If I were Stronach, I would be sure that whatever network carries the Sunshine Millions next year makes better use of the time than NBC did Saturday. I thought the photo at the end of the Turf was a tough one to call, even though the telecast crew emphatically called it, correctly as it turned out, and it was unconscionable that NBC made viewers wait through commercials and pre-race warm-ups for the Classic - for more than six minutes - before offering the result. Also absurd was NBC's decision to cut to a useless head-on shot down the backstretch in the Turf. Of course, this is all stuff that NBC has done before in its never-ending quest to alienate the hard-core fan. For that, throw the network another Eclipse Award.