Updated on 09/17/2011 10:48AM

Sunshine Millions here to stay

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - An outstanding afternoon of racing.

The inaugural Sunshine Millions was a rousing show that seemed to play well, both to racing men and women who support it and to the public, which appeared to enjoy it. This was racing entertainment at its best; horses of proven ability in competitive settings that brought out the quality and the arresting aspects of the sport.

Some 36,000 fans, almost equally divided between Gulfstream and Santa Anita, saw Florida-breds cast an unimpeachable vote over their California rivals. Most of the finishes were desperate, though, and there was honor enough for the breeders of both states. There was a festive air to the proceedings and most of those in attendance appeared to be having a good time.

The Sunshine Millions looks like it is here to stay, and management is confident it can improve the product with a few subtle tweaks. One point is obvious. The Sunshine Millions will impact on the present early-season programs at Gulfstream and Santa Anita, and both tracks will have to make adjustments as horsemen pass traditional features in favor of the rich pots.

A case in point was the Sunshine Millions Classic, which attracted an upscale field and delivered a dramatic story line. Making light of his age, the 8-year-old Best of the Rest benefited from a well-judged ride by Eibar Coa to prevail by half a length over the game and talented Booklet. Booklet got caught up in a speed duel on the lead with Island Skipper and the two zipped along in 1:10.58 for the first six furlongs. That should have taken the starch out of him, but Booklet overcame the fractions and the outside post position to fully extend the favorite.

"That was great for racing and great for us," the trainer of Best of the Rest, Eddie Plesa Jr., commented at the barn. "This horse has had a tough road to travel. After his second start as a 3-year-old, he chipped a knee and underwent surgery.

"He had a long stay on the sidelines, returned to the races, and then chipped the other knee. Once again there was surgery and still a third operation on the knee, followed by a fracture to the back of the knee. He went through it all, retained his enthusiasm for racing, and had a pretty good season last year."

Best of the Rest, a homebred horse by Skip Trial, is owned by Bea and Bernie Oxenberg, who have raced at the Miami tracks for years. They have had some good ones, but Best of the Rest, a winner of more than $1.2 million, is their finest.

The Oxenbergs have had a chance to sell Best of the Rest but turned down the offer. They would like to see him stand at stud, and his cause would be strengthened materially if he could bring off a Grade 1 victory. That is why Plesa is considering the $500,000 Donn Handicap on Feb. 22 for his next start.

"He came out of the Classic better than he went into it," the trainer said. "He's a remarkable horse."