01/22/2004 12:00AM

Show me the . . . well, you know


ARCADIA, Calif. - It's not the showgirls, the beach balls, the banners, or the looming presence of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

It's the money.

It's not the (mostly) full fields, the familiar names, the television time, or a chance to hang with the guys from "Casino" and "Raging Bull."

It's the money.

It's not the honor, the glory, or the sudden fame that comes with winning a race on a major American racing stage.

It . . . is . . . the . . . money.

"When I was young," wrote Oscar Wilde, "I thought that money was the most important thing in life. Now that I am old I know that it is."

The money is what the Sunshine Millions is all about. Three million, six hundred thousand dollars harvested from various sources and dumped triumphantly into eight pari-mutuel events split between Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park.

Older males run for a cool million. Grass horses, male and female, split another million. Sprinters, divided by gender, are in for six hundred large.

Zeroes fill the air. Older fillies and mares who prefer dirt to grass have a half-million race of their own. Three-year-olds, some of them barely out of breaking halters, need only negotiate six harmless furlongs in a pair of quarter-million-dollar events.

Money once was a fair and logical measure of excellence in horse racing. Big deals were made of the horse who topped the list of money winners, especially in the days when money - real, folding, pocket money - was a scarce commodity. The heroes were horses who could rack up the scratch: Sun Beau, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Armed, Stymie, and then, amazingly, millionaire Citation.

Nevermore. Money has become meaningless as a gauge of class. Thank goodness for figures and sheets. It is some consolation that Cigar and Skip Away still top North America's all-time list of money winners, with their 31 combined stakes victories accumulated during careers that sought no safe havens. Still, their records will begin to crumble the moment a Triple Crown bonus baby comes along (and is soon retired) or some horse with 12 starts wins its second Dubai World Cup.

Easy money is a good thing if you can get it, and the Sunshine Millions means easy money. A whole lot of easy money. The conditions of the races eliminate horses bred in Kentucky, Ireland, England, France, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, which is pretty much the same as staging a Masters but telling Tiger, Vijay, Ernie, and Phil that they're not welcome to play.

Of course, there probably would be no Sunshine Millions if it were opened to all comers. Funding, in part, is provided by the breeding and ownership organizations of Florida and California. And while Florida and California together can lay claim to about 23 percent of the North American foal crop, limiting fields to horses bred in just two states does just that. It limits the extent of competitive depth, and it can limit the satisfaction derived from even the fastest, closest, most exciting contests.

When the California-bred Adminniestrator came down to the line a nose in front of the Florida-bred Music's Storm at the end of the 2003 Sunshine Millions Turf, getting the 1 1/8 miles in a lickety-split 1:46.48, it was a thriller for all concerned and worth $275,000 to owner Nico Nierenberg.

Then, when the dust settled, there remained a lingering whiff of "what if" in the air. Five days earlier, Johar and stablemate The Tin Man put on a cracking show to finish one-two in the Grade 2 San Marcos Handicap at 10 furlongs on the same Santa Anita turf, setting a stakes record of 1:57.92 in the process. Now that was a memorable race, even though it was worth just $90,000 to the winner.

But that's okay, as long as everyone is clear on the concept. The Sunshine Millions is not about promoting stars, enhancing the reputation of a stakes program or improving the breed. It's about the m-o-n-e-y.

Because it is about the money, it is not all that important who wins. Still, it should be noted that 2003 Sunshine Millions winners Valid Video, Madame Pietra, Smok'n Frolic, Atlantic Ocean, and Adminniestrator will be back to run again, providing a leg up on continuity.

So if the riches of the Sunshine Millions can give owners the incentive to resist early retirement and keep the best Florida-breds and California-breds in training, that's a good thing.

If the promotions and pageantry of the day, coupled with attractive wagering events, can lure fans and their gambling dollars in greater numbers, that is also a good thing.

The best possible message the Sunshine Millions can send should be directed toward current and potential Thoroughbred owners. Such an event proves that an investor need not be a Middle Eastern sheikh or a captain of industry to catch lightning in a bottle. The Sunshine Millions Classic offers the same million-dollar purse as the Pacific Classic or the Santa Anita Handicap. The difference - as further incentive for lucky owners with eligible horses - is that there will be no Congaree, Medaglia d'Oro, Candy Ride, or Pleasantly Perfect around to spoil the view.