01/23/2003 12:00AM

New incentive plan has Hills alive on two coasts


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Every Thoroughbred statebred program in North America comes with incentives. Call it protec-tionism, but the parameters that have evolved within programs in many jurisdictions can make buying a statebred a lucrative proposition indeed.

This long has been the case with the Florida breeding program, but only to a certain degree. Veteran trainer Tim Hills, who has two starters in the inaugural Sunshine Millions program Saturday, said that "until now, the only good opportunities to capitalize on having a Florida-bred was the Stallion Stakes and the Florida Owners Awards," a bonus program tied to certain high-level races. "There are some other states, such as Illinois, New York, and New Jersey, where the incentives are considerably greater."

But, suddenly, having a Florida-bred just got a whole lot better. In November, the first Florida Million Day, six races with total purses of $1 million, was held at Calder, and now comes the Sunshine Millions with its $3.6 million in purses. Hills, who later this year will mark his 30th year as a trainer, is happy to be a part of this Saturday's festivities.

"I have a lot of admiration for the boss, Frank Stronach, for the way this has come together," said Hills, 50. "There's been a tremendous amount of detail go into this, from the racing office to the marketing, to so many other things that people don't even think of. It's really great to see it all fall into place the way it has. I really want to support it any way I can, so I'm glad I've got a couple of horses to run in it."

Hills will stay in Florida to run Wish It Were in the $250,000 Filly and Mare Sprint at Gulfstream while dispatching an assistant to run Stormy Roman in the $500,000 Turf at Santa Anita. Although both are the kind of horses nearly any horseman would like to have in the barn, it would have been unreasonable to assume that they could compete for the huge purses that will be dangled Saturday.

Hills agrees that he is typical of a trainer who stands to earn a windfall that would not have been possible without the Sunshine Millions.

"This is just a wonderful opportunity for someone like myself and my owners," he said. "Other than Florida being a terrific place to raise a young horse, one of the big reasons for raising a Florida-bred usually has been to take them to the sales and get a good price for them. Now, this is something that people can point to year-round. It's a great incentive to get in the business and stay in the business.

"The Sunshine Millions program alone could really help the Florida breeding industry as a whole. For so many years, when you'd get a hot stallion, they'd go off to another state because of better opportunities. That's happened all the way from

Mr. Prospector in the 70's to Out of Place in the last couple of years. The incentives that come with the Sunshine Millions might help stabilize that kind of thing."

Hills, a former leading trainer at Rockingham Park in his native New Hampshire, has raced primarily in Florida and New Jersey for the last 15 years or so. He attained one of his career highlights last summer when he was the leading trainer at Monmouth Park, the first title he had won since leaving Rockingham. To have either or both of his horses run well Saturday could result in another high point.

"They're both 12-1 on the morning line, but they're both doing well, and we're going in with the feeling that it's going to be hard to lose," he said. "I'm like a lot of other guys. I'm glad this is getting off the ground, and even happier to be able to participate."