01/31/2003 1:00AM

Some modest Sunshine proposals


NEW YORK - Last weekend's Sunshine Millions has been widely pronounced a roaring success, a verdict that seems reminiscent of the old joke about the horse owner who says that racing has made him a millionaire.

"The only problem," says the owner, "is that I started out with $10 million."

There's no disputing that business improved dramatically by turning a sleepy Saturday previously headed by the Ft. Lauderdale Handicap at Gulfstream and the Santa Monica at Santa Anita into a bicoastal stakes festival featuring full fields and fat purses. At Gulfstream, attendance went from 16,328 a year ago to 18,719, while total handle on its races shot from $12.1 million to $15.7 million. At Santa Anita, a nine-race card drew 11,191 people and $14 million in 2002, while this year's 10-race card drew 17,108 bodies and $19.5 million in bets.

A $9.1 million increase in total handle sounds sweeter than it was for the two host tracks, because $8.3 million of that jump came through interstate wagering, in which the people putting on the show retain only around 3 percent of the handle - a net of about $250,000. All told, by the most generous math, the two tracks' combined increase in revenue for the day could not have approached $1 million. Meanwhile on the expense side, total purses for the eight new races were $3.6 million, $1.2 million of that being a direct Magna subsidy, and Magna spend well over $500,000 more on promotions and the purchase of network television time.

The Sunshine Millions clearly makes no economic sense unless viewed as an extravagant marketing expense for Magna Entertainment. Perhaps there were some new faces in the crowds, perhaps some regulars at the two tracks were spurred to bet on simulcasts for the first time, and perhaps some television viewers have a heightened awareness of the two tracks.

That's a lot of perhapses for a public company whose shareholders were already grousing about the cost of the event on Internet message boards last week. This is not a case of a rocky first year for a day of racing that will ultimately pay for itself by booming in the future. In fact, it is difficult to see the event growing much in years to come. Weather and field sizes this year were as good as they're going to get, and there is no natural public interest to be built in ultimately meaningless statebred racing. How long will Magna be willing to absorb similar losses?

There may be a way to preserve aspects of the event that worked well while avoiding an inevitable scrapping of the series. What the public responded to was fast-paced stakes action and full fields - not the statebred aspect, the competition between the two sunny states, or the extravagant purses.

So why not tinker with the current schedule of open stakes races at this time of year at the two tracks and run eight of them on a single Saturday afternoon? For far less money than was squandered on unnecessarily large purses for new races - the exact same horses and handle would have shown up had the Classic and Distaff races offered half of their obscene $1 million and $750,000 purses - these existing races could be sweetened to attract full fields. They might also attract horses that people have actually heard of before or will care about in the future.

An afternoon of even six such races, plus a pair of $250,000 statebred races, would provide as much or more interest and betting appeal while presenting better and more important racing - at least as much bang for a lot fewer bucks. This would enhance rather than detract from perfectly good graded races, which instead were sapped of candidates and treated shabbily. Why would Magna lure older sprinting fillies away from California with a $250,000 restricted race the same day it is staging the Santa Monica, the first Grade 1 race of the year in North America, with a purse of only $200,000?

Another aspect of the day that could be improved is the coordination of the events at the two sites. Gulfstream tried but at Santa Anita Saturday, few efforts were made to inform trackgoers that there were companion races being run at Gulfstream. Magna's own HRTV gave the Gulfstream races no more prominence than the third at Golden Gate or the ninth at Laurel. The best way to make people pay attention, beyond utilizing the public-address system, would be to win approval for some multirace wagers linking the races at both tracks.

Magna is to be commended for trying something new and bold with the Sunshine Millions and seems absolutely on the right track in trying to create a day with a "big event" feel at this time of the year. This event, however, is young enough to be overhauled in a way that will ensure its survival.