01/01/2003 1:00AM

Sunshine Millions brightens meet


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The most notable change in the Gulfstream stakes schedule this year is the addition of the Sunshine Millions, a multi-million dollar series that represents the most ambitious racing program ever undertaken by the track's owner, Magna Entertainment Corp.

The Sunshine Millions, an eight-race series worth $3.6 million, will be run simultaneously at Gulfstream and its Magna sister track Santa Anita Park, on Jan. 25. All races are restricted to eligible Florida- or California-breds.

Nominations for all eight races are plentiful, which should translate into large and competitive fields. Not only are officials at Gulfstream and Santa Anita delighted with the initial response, but owners and trainers are eager to run for the exorbitant purses. The richest races are the $1 million Classic at Gulfstream, and the $750,000 Distaff and $500,000 Turf at Santa Anita.

Magna owner Frank Stronach has been personally involved with many of the details in the Sunshine Millions, said Gulfstream racing secretary Dave Bailey. Stronach is "ecstatic with the way it's shaping up," Bailey said.

Trainer Todd Pletcher said horsemen are grateful that Magna has come up with the new concept.

"Anybody with a Cal-bred or Fla-bred is loving it," Pletcher said. "I've got Smok'n Frolic for the Distaff, and it's a great opportunity for her, since there won't be a lot of other spots where she fits for $750,000.

"If field sizes are big, which it looks like they might be, then it could be a real popular day. Anything that generates enthusiasm for racing is a positive thing, and it looks at this point like the Sunshine Millions is getting a better reception than most people would've thought. It's good for all of us."

NBC-TV will provide a one-hour telecast of Sunshine Millions.

Harlan's Holiday back to work

Harlan's Holiday, winner of the 2002 Florida Derby, is back at Gulfstream and will begin his 2003 campaign on Jan. 11 in the Hal's Hope Handicap.

Harlan's Holiday and Booklet were the two brightest stars here last winter, going head to head three times in important Kentucky Derby preps. Booklet came out on top in their first two meetings, posting narrow wins in the Holy Bull and the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth Stakes. Harlan's Holiday then turned the tables with a 3 1/2-length triumph in the Grade 1 Florida Derby.

Booklet is also here this winter, although the two arch-rivals aren't likely to cross paths for a while. While Harlan's Holiday begins his campaign in the Hal's Hope, Booklet, a Florida-bred, will await the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 25. Harlan's Holiday, an Ohio-bred, is ineligible for the restricted stakes and instead will be pointed to the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 22.

Harlan's Holiday was stabled with trainer Ken McPeek last winter, but is with Pletcher this season, at the Palm Meadows training center.

"He's training very well," Pletcher said. "He worked a good five-eighths earlier this week and will work once more before the Hal's Hope."

Harlan's Holiday has won once - an easy triumph in the Grade 3 Pennsylvania Derby - in four tries since being moved to Pletcher's barn last summer. He was winless in three subsequent starts, all in Grade 1 stakes against older horses, finishing third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, ninth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and fourth in the Cigar Mile in his 3-year-old finale.

Pletcher will try get his meet off to a fast start when he sends out Balto Star in Saturday's Appleton Handicap at one mile on turf.

Balto Star closed out his 2002 campaign with an easy allowance win on Aqueduct's main track, and turned in perhaps his most impressive performance of the year on grass when he finished second behind With Anticipation in the Grade 1 Man o' War.

Balto Star will run in the Appleton even if it is rained off the turf.

"He's good on either surface, which is a nice position to be in," Pletcher said. "He's run some big races on turf and dirt, although the most encouraging thing he did last season was learn to relax and win from off the pace."

Among Balto Star's chief rivals in the Appleton will be the tough veteran North East Bound, who also has won on both surfaces. His only victory last year came in the Grade 3 Canadian Turf Handicap, which was moved from the turf to a wet main track.

"I'm not sure if it was the off track or the weak competition he faced in the Canadian, but I still believe he's a better horse on turf than dirt," said Bill Perry, who trains North East Bound for owners Julian Demarco and Richard Disano.

North East Bound, who finished second in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Mile, came down with a minor foot problem following a sixth-place finish in the Grade 2 Knickerbocker Handicap on Nov. 2.

"The soft turf was not for him that day and he came back with an old foot injury that caused him to miss some training when we first got here," Perry said. "But he worked good over the main track the other day so I think he'll make the Appleton without any problem."

Balto Star will be the 118-pound highweight in the Grade 2 Appleton. Other probable starters include North East Bound (116), Krieger (115), Sir Brian's Sword (115), Wertz (115), Autonomy (113), Illusionary (113), Red Sea (113), and Saint Verre (113).

Allamerican Bertie goes grass

Sunday's feature is the $100,000 Honey Fox. The Grade 3 Honey Fox, for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on turf, could have Allamerican Bertie as the favorite under Pat Day. Allamerican Bertie, trained by Steve Flint, captured the Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs in her last start.

Both weekend cards also will include a secondary stakes - the $100,000 Mr. Prospector Handicap on Saturday and the $65,000 Dame Mysterieuse on Sunday.

Zito patient with Najran

Trainer Nick Zito had the up-and-coming Najran nominated for both stakes races on Saturday, but Najran won't run in either.

"He's doing great up at the training center, but it's a long year and right now our goals are the Gulfstream Park Sprint Handicap at seven furlongs and then possibly the Carter or Keeneland's Commonwealth Handicap after we leave here this spring," Zito said. "And with that being the plan, I preferred not to turn him back to six furlongs [for the Mr. Prospector] on Saturday. We'll probably look to give him one prep for the Sprint Handicap, either the Deputy Minister or something else if a suitable race pops up before then."

New simulcast analyst

Gulfstream simulcast viewers will be greeted by a new face Friday - Joanne Jones, a racing media veteran from Southern California.

Jones, 38, has worked in racing since 1989, having held down various radio and television jobs. She most recently worked as an analyst on the Television Games Network.

Jones, who is the daughter of handicapper Gordon Jones, will provide handicapping analysis before every race and serve as host of the nightly replay show on the Sunshine Network. She replaces Jennifer Burke, who served in both roles the last several years.

* Jockey Jon Court, the Midwest veteran who rode here last year with moderate success, has decided to pass on Gulfstream in favor of returning to Oaklawn Park, which begins Jan. 24.

* The annual Gulfstream concert series begins Saturday with Michael McDonald, the former Doobie Brothers lead singer. The concert series has proven highly popular with local fans since being initiated several years ago by David Rovine, a former show business professional who has led Gulfstream's marketing and public-outreach efforts since the mid-1990's.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch