01/26/2006 1:00AM

Restricted Millions not all bad

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It's a hard leap, but it has to be made, jumping from the breathless heights of Monday's Eclipse Award winners to the more realistic levels represented at Gulfstream and Santa Anita on Saturday in the Sunshine Millions.

In an ideal world, this highly contrived California-Florida showdown would have been topped by Florida-bred Afleet Alex, running for money that befits his station in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic. He was headed this way, too, before he was retired.

In this same ideal world, Lost in the Fog - a Florida-bred and a California hero - might have been cranked up a couple of months early to make the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint a truly special affair.

To continue the fantasy, there would have been a place on the Sunshine Millions program for such 3-year-olds as California-bred Brother Derek and Florida-bred Wild Fit, instead of the six-furlong foolishness that dumbs down the age group in the Sunshine Millions Dash and the Sunshine Millions Oaks. Yes, a six-furlong Oaks.

The "what if" department might have been rounded out by the presence of the late What a Song, the retired Splendid Blended, and the enigmatic Bellamy Road, all bred in Florida and all worthy of the amped-up purses offered in Saturday's eight events.

After just three runnings, it is impossible to grant the Sunshine Millions institutional status. In fact, every version of the Sunshine Millions seems like it could be the last, since its $3.6 million in guaranteed purses is funded mainly by the promotional budget of Magna Entertainment Corp., a company that has shown operating losses approaching $200 million over the last two years.

So hats off to anybody with a Cal-bred or a Florida-bred who can cash in while the opportunity exists. But please do not make the mistake that your horse has done something truly special.

In his callow youth, this reporter was always entranced by the idea of the Queen's Plate, a grand event that seized the attention of all sporting Canada for one gorgeous summer afternoon. Royalty was sometimes involved. The race was at 1 1/4 miles, requiring the same speed and stamina as the Kentucky Derby. The purse was $100,000, plus 50 guineas, but never mind that it was Canadian dollars, and who knew how much a guinea was worth? Look who won it - Northern Dancer! - I was 13. What did I know?

Then the scales fell from my eyes and I learned that the Queen's Plate was restricted to horses foaled in Canada, a lovely country, to be sure, but with a total Thoroughbred foal crop that would finish a poor third to Florida and California. The Queen's Plate, sigh, was nothing more than a restricted race, albeit a restricted race with a lot of pomp and colorful circumstance.

The Sunshine Millions is more of the same, with more horses and more zeroes, not to mention cheerleaders, bikini contests, skydivers, and musical treats (scratch that - Santa Anita has canned the skydivers, which was probably a good idea, since there is only one thing that can go right with a skydiver and several things that can just plain ruin an afternoon).

Restricted events certainly have their place in the racing agenda. They can serve as launchpads for developing stars - both Lost in the Fog and Southern Image parlayed Sunshine Millions wins into greater things - or safe havens for local favorites who deserve a stage of their own.

There is a dusty old racetrack rule of thumb that something is wrong, though, when a horse wins a race worth more than the horse himself, even after the race has been won. Fortunately, the 2005 Sunshine Millions offers a few events that could be spared from such an imbalance.

If they all stay in the field, Leave Me Alone, Alphabet Kisses, and Western Hemisphere make the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita more than worthy of its $300,000 purse.

The Gulfstream Park equivalent event for the boys is the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint, and it smacks of an old-school brawl among blue-collar hard-knockers. Nothing babied about these guys, including Thor's Echo (10 starts in 2005), Areyoutalkintome (23 races in two years), Tacirring (he went 7 for 12 in 2005) and Bordonaro, who has won six of his eight starts and looks like the one to beat.

Back at Santa Anita, the $500,000 Filly and Mare Turf features several of the same traveling troupe of players from last year, including Moscow Burning, Midwife, Vous, and the queen of the pack, Valentine Dancer, winner of the race in 2004 and 2005. One more and they should name the race in her honor.

The $500,000 Distaff, set for Gulfstream Park, has a familiar California ring with Dream of Summer and House of Fortune involved. They would be wise, however, to watch out for locals Special Report, Secret Corsage, and Pitanga, as well as the defending champ, Sweet Lips, who beat Dream of Summer at Santa Anita last year and has been pointed for this day by Bobby Frankel.

Finally, if the Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita is going to live up to its $1 million purse, it needs to get a big performance from Hollywood Gold Cup and Californian winner Lava Man.

Granted, Tricky Trevor, McCann's Mojave, Buzzards Bay, Supervisor, and Proud Tower Too all have enjoyed brief moments in the sun. But Lava Man is the only horse in the full field with world-class credentials, no restrictions required.