01/21/2003 12:00AM

Millions waters down other stakes

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - The presence of the Sunshine Millions on Saturday will cost the weekend's two graded stakes at Santa Anita a few contenders.

There will not be a large field in Saturday's $200,000 Santa Monica Handicap, which will be run after the four Santa Anita races in the Sunshine Millions.

The most notable absentee is Madame Pietra, the winner of two sprint stakes last fall who is entered in the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint at Gulfstream Park on the same day.

Sunday, the field for the $150,000 Palos Verdes Handicap over six furlongs will not include Debonair Joe, the winner of the Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26; Echo Eddie, the winner of the Dayjur Handicap last month; or Giovannetti, the winner of four consecutive races, including the California Cup Starter Handicap last November.

All three are being pointed for the Sunshine Millions Sprint at Santa Anita.

Howard Zucker trains Madame Pietra. He considered both races, but went for the more lucrative Filly and Mare Sprint.

"This is too good a deal to miss out on," Zucker said of the Sunshine Millions. "If we weren't in this, I'd have to give the Santa Monica a look."

The seven-furlong Santa Monica is the first Grade 1 race of the year. The probables include Kitty on the Track, Medalha Milagrosa, Rene des Neiges, Sightseek, and Whoopddoo. Sightseek, the winner of the Raven Run Stakes at Keeneland and the Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct last fall, will be a heavy favorite.

Even without Debonair Joe, Echo Eddie, or Giovannetti, the Palos Verdes will have a strong field. Run over six furlongs, the Palos Verdes is led by Kona Gold, the 2000 champion sprinter, who will face Avanzado, D'wildcat, Hombre Rapido, Mellow Fellow, Radiata, and Roman Dancer.

Giovannetti was nominated, but only as a backup, according to trainer Frank Monteleone.

"We nominated only if we didn't get in the Sunshine Millions," he said. "The Sunshine Millions is an easier field and it's more money. There is no Kona Gold and no Disturbingthepeace."

Business disappointing so far

Santa Anita has directed a considerable portion of its promotional budget toward the Sunshine Millions program, and the track needs a successful day to help revive a disappointing first month of the winter-spring meeting.

Through Monday, attendance and handle figures are trailing the corresponding figures from last year. According to information released daily to the media, the average ontrack attendance for the first 21 days of the meeting is 9,374, a decline of 8 percent. The average ontrack attendance has been below 10,000 only once in the history of the track, during the inaugural season in 1934-35, when the average attendance was 9,926.

Handle figures were not encouraging. Through Monday, the average ontrack handle is $2,302,423 (a drop of 11 percent), while the overall handle is $11,096,991, a decline of 6 percent.

Track officials emphasize that the overall handle figure is incomplete, pending revenue from advance deposit wagering accounts that has not been computed.

Regardless, the drop may be irreversible before the current meeting ends on April 20, according to Jack Liebau, Santa Anita's president.

"In light of the economy, I think it will be difficult," he said. "The trend is not just here at Santa Anita, but continues on from Hollywood Park and throughout the country. People are experiencing bad economic times."

The drop in handle has yet to affect purses, but remains a concern, according to John Van de Kamp, the president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California.

Last year, Santa Anita raised purses midway through the meeting, but that is not expected this year because of business conditions.

"We're concerned about attendance," Van de Kamp said. "It's hard to explain because the weather has been terrific. We've had good fields, by and large. It's a cause for concern. The Hollywood Park meeting was also very slow."

Promotions galore for Millions

Magna Entertainment Corporation, the parent company of Santa Anita, has stressed the Sunshine Millions in recent months, at the expense of other big days. In past years, the Martin Luther King Jr. program on Monday included a merchandise giveaway. This year, there was no such promotion.

As a result, ontrack business suffered. Last year, a crowd of 18,808 contributed to an ontrack handle of more than $3.1 million. This year, the ontrack crowd was 8,544 and the ontrack handle was $2,691,199.

There will be no lack of promotions for Saturday's card, including conventional giveaways such as merchandise and mystery mutuel tickets, as well as other outlandish promotions such as sky divers, a bikini contest, and the presence of cheerleaders.

Magna has purchased an hour of television on the NBC network to show part of the Sunshine Millions.

The aggressive campaign is a switch from the track's promotional direction in recent years.

Instead of a widespread television, radio, and newspaper campaign, the promotional budget has been slashed and narrowed, with an added emphasis on direct mail advertising.

Cuts have also been made ontrack. A general information booth in the paddock is no longer manned, even on weekends when larger crowds draw more casual observers.

For the Sunshine Millions, the track will have advertising on radio and in newspapers.

Whether the promotions will attract customers to the Sunshine Millions program, or the other major days at the rest of the meeting, remains to be seen. Track officials are reluctant to estimate the size of Saturday's crowd, but a figure of 20,000 has reportedly been discussed privately. Last year, the corresponding day drew 11,191.

Liebau insists that the Sunshine Millions is here to stay.

"I think the Sunshine Millions is considered a long-term investment," Liebau said. "It's a special and distinct promotion that involves Magna as a whole."

Congaree points for San Antonio

Congaree, the winner of the Cigar Mile Handicap in November and the San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 4, is being pointed for the $300,000 San Antonio Handicap over 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 2, Baffert said.

On Tuesday, Congaree breezed five furlongs in 59.60 seconds, and galloped out six furlongs in 1:11.80, according to Baffert's stopwatch.

"He worked awesome and he was very fluid," Baffert said. "We're right on target."

Plea for prime-time replay show

Van de Kamp said he has sent a memo to track officials throughout Southern California urging them to present a nightly replay program during prime time.

During the current Santa Anita meeting, a replay program is available on over-the-air television in the Los Angeles area on KDOC (Channel 56) two nights a week. A nightly replay program is offered on the Fox Sports Net cable network, but airs at 1:30 a.m.

While a replay program was offered on KDOC during the Oak Tree at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park fall meetings, there was no replay program offered on over-the-air television in the Los Angeles area during the Del Mar meeting last summer.

"The tracks have to have a consistent replay show every night," Van de Kamp said. "I've sent a memo to all the tracks to try to join hands. One o'clock in the morning doesn't do it."

'Domestic' will wait for March races

Domestic Dispute, who won his first stakes in the Santa Catalina Stakes last Saturday, may not resurface on the Triple Crown trail until March, trainer Bob Baffert said.

Domestic Dispute impressed Baffert with the style of his three-length victory. He rallied from eighth to pass front-runners Our Bobby V. and Scrimshaw in early stretch. It was his first start since he finished third in the Hollywood Futurity and was moved up to second via disqualification.

"We had to teach him to rate in the Hollywood Futurity," Baffert said. "He got the experience and [had] sprinters in front of him."

Baffert mentioned the San Rafael Stakes over a mile on March 1 and the San Felipe Stakes over 1 1/16 miles on March 16 as possibilities.

"He came out of it full of himself, which is a good sign," Baffert said. "I think the farther the better."

Our Bobby V. is being pointed for the San Rafael. Lukas has no plans for Scrimshaw, who finished third in his stakes debut.

"I left him a little soft," he said. "I took it easy and it showed."