01/25/2010 12:00AM

Planning pays off

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The eighth annual Sunshine Millions has been reduced from eight races to six and the top purse is $500,000 for the Sunshine Millions Classic, down from $1 million. But the bicoastal event at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita scheduled for Saturday still promises competitive races and considerable interest from horseplayers throughout the land.

The premise remains the same: The races are restricted to 4-year-olds and up bred in Florida or California; three will be run at Gulfstream, three at Santa Anita.

Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream

RacePurseDistance

Sprint$200,0006 furlongs

Distaff$300,0001 1/8 miles

Turf$300,0001 1/8 miles

Sunshine Millions at Santa Anita Park

RacePurseDistance

F-M Sprint$200,0006 furlongs

F-M Turf$300,0001 1/8 miles

Classic$500,0001 1/8 miles

Because these races are set each year for a similar date on the calendar, handicappers give strong credence to one key point above all others: It is highly likely the winners will come from a small group of contenders that have been specifically pointed for these events.

Among the most likely contenders for the F-M Sprint at Santa Anita are U R All That I Am, Exchange Rate, Via Venuto and Libor Lady.

Taking them one by one, Libor Lady is a very versatile 5-year-old based in Maryland with sharp front-running speed. She visited five Eastern tracks last year, winning 4 of 7, including two 5 1/2-furlong sprint stakes, one on the turf at Monmouth Park and one on the Tapeta track at Presque Isle Downs. While this mare is sure to be on or near the pace in this race, and jockey Garrett Gomez is one of America's best, early speed has not exactly been a positive asset on the Santa Anita Pro-Ride this year.

Via Venuto is a lightly raced 4-year-old daughter of 2002 champion sprinter Orientate who has won only once from five career starts, all of them in 2009. Despite that relatively unaccomplished career record, Via Venuto has two positive credentials that should be considered, especially for exotic wagering purposes. She is trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, a man equally adept with 2-year-olds, sprinters, fillies, and Triple Crown prospects. The other factor that suggests she will be ready for a good effort is the improving pattern of her Beyer Speed Figures.

Rate of Exchange, a shipper from Calder trained by Marty Wolfson, has 13 in-the-money finishes from 18 career starts, including 4 wins and 7 seconds. While this will be her first outing on any synthetic surface, she has demonstrated excellent versatility by running well from slightly off the pace on fast dirt, turf, and sloppy surfaces. She also was a sharp fast-closing second in her 2009 return from a seven-month layoff to suggest that her current eight-week layoff will be no problem. Another positive sign is that the young rising star jockey Joel Rosario has taken the mount.

U R All That I Am will come to the F-M Sprint seeking her fifth score in six starts. She graduated from a $25,000 claiming win on the Tapeta track at Golden Gate Fields in August before winning two Golden Gate allowance races. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer confidently moved her up to win the $75,000 Cat's Cradle, a 7 1/2-furlong stakes for California-breds on the Cushion Track at Hollywood in mid-November. In her last start, U R All That I Am rallied for second in the Jan. 6 Kalookan Queen in her first start on the Santa Anita Pro-Ride.

While there are other horses who will command some interest in this six-furlong stakes, it is relatively easy to read between the lines to see that the above four have been pointed for this stakes for most of the past two months.

Looking at the Turf at Gulfstream in a similar manner, in the absence of the high-class Presious Passion, I would expect locally based Soldier's Dancer to take plenty beating as a potential repeater in this race, which was contested on the Santa Anita turf course last year.

In the 2009 Sunshine Millions Turf, Soldier's Dancer had to run down the front-running Presious Passion, who subsequently proved how difficult that was on numerous occasions, including his memorable second-place finish to Conduit in the 12-furlong $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita last fall.

Trained by David Vivian, the 6-year-old Soldier's Dancer will be seeking his third straight stakes victory, having won a pair of 1 1 /8-mile turf stakes with strong rallies at Philadelphia Park and Calder to close out a solid but brief five-race 2009 campaign. With a purse of $300,000, this race obviously is one of this veteran's primary targets and he just might be the key to success in the day's multi-race exotic bets, which will include the renewed Magna 5. The five-race sequence will encompass races from Laurel, Gulfstream, Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields on Sunshine Millions Day.

But the Turf is far from a one-horse race, and the logical front-runner this year probably will be another veteran, the 7-year-old Jet Propulsion, a recent $50,000 claim who has 11 wins and 5 seconds from 31 grass races, including several stakes. New trainer Marty Wolfson certainly has put Jet Propulsion through an aggressive training program in recent weeks with an eye out for this specific contest.

Western-based The Usual Q.T. also would be a strong contender if trainer James Cassidy ships him in for the race, but he is expected to stay home and run in the Classic.

In other Sunshine Millions races at Santa Anita, it makes sense to give a close look to 7-year-old Bold Chieftain in the Classic and Eastern-based Scolara and Closeout in the Filly-Mare Turf.

Bold Chieftain is a hard-hitting old pro who has won more than $1 million from 14 wins in 32 starts, including good performances on this Pro-Ride surface.

Scolara, trained by Hall of Famer Billy Mott, flashed a good late kick in all but one of her seven turf stakes last year and has been training forwardly at Payson Park. Closeout also has been training well for Tom Proctor at Tampa Bay Downs for a possible return to Santa Anita, where she was second in her 2009 finale in the Grade 2 Las Palmas on the Friday Breeders' Cup undercard.

In the Sunshine Millions races at Gulfstream, This Ones for Phil and Accredit deserve close inspection in the Sprint. Amazing and Sweet Repent deserve similar consideration in the Distaff.

This Ones for Phil won the (discontinued) Sunshine Millions Dash for 3-year-olds last year and seems to have a slim edge in speed over Accredit.

Sweet Repent and Amazing were close together in a the highly rated Grade 3 Stage Door Betty at Calder on Dec. 26. While the former has won four straight, the latter is a legit wire-to-wire threat to reverse the previous outcome.