12/13/2002 1:00AM

Sunshine Millions lures 'em in


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There will be no shortage of potential starters for the inaugural $3.6 million Sunshine Millions for California-breds and Florida-breds at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita on Jan. 25.

Early-bird nominations closed on Monday with 326 horses eligible for the eight races. The Sunshine Millions is a new concept developed by Magna Entertainment, the parent company of both tracks.

The most popular race is the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash for 3-year-olds over seven furlongs at Gulfstream Park, which drew 58 nominations.

The richest race is the $1 million Classic at 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream Park, which drew 39 nominees. The most familiar Caliornia-breds on the list are Continental Red, Grey Memo, Hot Market, and Lusty Latin. Florida-breds include Best of the Rest, Booklet, and Sir Bear.

Gulfstream Park will also host the $250,000 Filly and Mare Sprint at six furlongs and the $350,000 Filly and Mare Turf over 1 1/8 miles.

Santa Anita will host the $750,000 Distaff over 1 1/16 miles, the $500,000 Turf at 1 1/8 miles on turf, the $250,000 Sprint over six furlongs, and the $250,000 Oaks for 3-year-old fillies over seven furlongs.

The Filly and Mare Sprint was the least popular race at the early-bird stage, with 25 nominees. Madame Pietra, the Florida-bred mare who is based in California, is a top candidate.

The nomination lists will grow next month. For owners who missed the $100 early-bird nomination last week, there is a $500 nomination stage available on Jan. 11.

Each track will host four races with fields limited to 12 starters. Promoters are hoping that each state has six starters in each race. There is a provision allowing for more than six starters from one state if the traveling state does not have six representatives.

Turf or dirt for Team Continental Red?

As the Sunshine Millions draws closer, owners Sharon and Wes Fitzpatrick will face a decision on whether to run Continental Red in the Classic or the $500,000 Turf.

On Dec. 7, Continental Red complicated that decision by winning his first stakes on dirt, the Great State Challenge Classic at Sam Houston Race Park. In March, he won the San Luis Rey Stakes on turf at Santa Anita.

This year marked the first running of the Great State Challenge, and not many California horses ran in the series. Of the six races, only three included California-breds. Two races were won by California-breds, including Crackup in the Juvenile.

"We just wish we had more representatives," said Fitzpatrick, the president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. "We lost several horses we were counting on. We thought we'd have horses in every race."

Fitzpatrick cited the late withdrawals from the sprint of Disturbingthepeace and Unlimited Value because of injuries.

Another blow to field sizes for the event was the presence of top stakes winners Take Charge Lady (Distaff) and Forbidden Apple (Turf). Even though Forbidden Apple was beaten in the Turf, his appearance kept some owners and trainers from shipping in competitors.

For California horsemen, the threat of facing top competition and racing for a purse that is not much higher than races in Southern California contributed to the low turnout, Fitzpatrick said.

"I think field size will be hurt when you have strong horses like Take Charge Lady or Forbidden Apple," Fitzpatrick said. "People won't ship to run second or third. There are too many opportunities to run without the expense."

* The CTBA has chosen Aug. 10-11 for the 2003 yearling sale at the Del Mar HorsePark. This year, the Del Mar sale had a record average of $43,770.