01/22/2007 12:00AM

Time for Millions to loosen up


NEW YORK - Whether you like it just fine as it is, or believe that it could really be something with some tweaking, there can be no dispute that the Sunshine Millions achieved a significant breakthrough last year. In retrospect, the 2006 Sunshine Millions set a very high standard for the fifth edition of this event, to be conducted Saturday at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita, not to mention future runnings.

Three of the winners of last year's eight Sunshine Millions races were won by horses who went on to have campaigns of major impact. In fact, two of these three were finalists for champion in their respective Eclipse Award division, while the other was arguably leader of his division up until a loss in the Breeders' Cup.

The most notable of these three was Lava Man, who also just happened to win the most important Sunshine Millions race last year, the Classic. Lava Man, of course, went on to a spectacular year, becoming the first to win California's four biggest races for older horses - the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, and Goodwood BC Handicap - in a single season. He also threw in a big win on the turf in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap for good measure, and had legitimate Horse of the Year aspirations, even in the face of Invasor and Bernardini, right up until his loss in the BC Classic.

Then there was Miesque's Approval, whose shocking upset at 48-1 in last year's Sunshine Millions Turf proved to be a harbinger of what was to come. Miesque's Approval went on to win four graded stakes in his six subsequent starts, including the BC Mile.

Bordonaro was the other important horse of 2006 to win a Sunshine Millions race last year. He followed up his score in the Sprint with victories in the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap and Ancient Title BC to rank at or near the top in his division. Bordonaro's championship hopes faded only when he faded to fourth in the BC Sprint behind Thor's Echo, a horse Bordonaro defeated in the Ancient Title.

The good news is, Lava Man and Bordonaro have return engagements in Saturday's Sunshine Millions. Bordonaro will attempt a defense of his title in the Sprint, which will be run this year at Santa Anita, while Lava Man will remain home and compete in the Turf at Santa Anita rather than ship to Gulfstream for the Classic.

Certainly, the presence of such high-class horses as Dubai Golden Shaheen winner Proud Tower Too (Sprint), Illinois Derby winner and Preakness runner-up Sweetnorthernsaint (Classic), and Grade 1 winner Take D' Tour (Distaff) will help bolster the quality of this Sunshine Millions.

Still, it is hard not to think how good the Sunshine Millions might be if it wasn't restricted to California- and Florida-breds. Maybe at its inception the Sunshine Millions needed some sort of unusual hook like its competition between California- and Florida-bred horses for fat purses to become established. But, predictably, no one, save for perhaps a couple of California and Florida breeders, cares one bit about a competition between California- and Florida-breds, or which state's breeding program might be stronger. Heck, the two breeding programs are hardly comparable. California has hundreds of races a year restricted to California-breds. Florida has races where Florida-breds are preferred, or races that are restricted to the offspring of registered Florida stallions, but hardly any races actually restricted to Florida-breds.

Now that the Sunshine Millions is established - last year's event certainly took care of that - the time has come to take the handcuffs off and let the Sunshine Millions be what it can be. It has been suggested before in this space, but now is a good time to repeat it: Why not open up the Sunshine Millions and make it a battle between horses stabled at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita, regardless of where they were bred? This would immediately and substantially boost the quality of this event.

Those who disagree would argue that doing this would only exacerbate the problem of the Sunshine Millions siphoning horses out of long-established races. The response is, this is already a problem, and you didn't have to look any further than last Saturday's four-horse Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita for an example. The way around this is to incorporate already established races into the Sunshine Millions series. The Sunshine Millions Sprint could be the Sunshine Millions Palos Verdes when it is at Santa Anita, or the Sunshine Millions Mr. Prospector when it is run at Gulfstream. The Sunshine Millions Classic could be the Sunshine Millions Donn when it is held at Gulfstream, or the Sunshine Millions San Antonio when it's at Santa Anita.

As a not-so-insignificant side benefit, by incorporating such established stakes, many of the Sunshine Millions races would achieve immediate graded status, which these races can never have so long as they remain restricted.

But even in its present form, the Sunshine Millions is the first true event day of the season, and it gets you thinking about big race days to come. And that's only a good thing.