Updated on 09/17/2011 9:48AM

For top dollar, a wide-open Classic


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Magna Entertainment Corp. unveils the first Sunshine Millions on Saturday, a novel series boasting at least one element to take it straight to the big time: a whopping $3.6 million in purses.

Purposely spotted in the dead of winter, when sunshine is elusive for many simulcast players, the series will bring rapid-fire action from Magna's two showcase tracks: Gulfstream Park in Florida and Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. In terms of creativity and scheduling, the Sunshine Millions purports to be a welcome new wrinkle that spares no expense or effort.

Simply put, "the purpose was to create another big day for racing," said Santa Anita president Jack Liebau.

The program will begin with the $250,000 Filly and Mare Sprint, which is carded as the sixth of 12 races at Gulfstream. With NBC-TV providing a live one-hour broadcast (3-4 p.m. Eastern) of the first three Millions races, the focus will quickly shift to Santa Anita for the $500,000 Turf. After that, it's back to Gulfstream for the richest race in the series, the $1 million Classic, a 1 1/8-mile race that happens to be the deepest and most competitive of the day.

After NBC signs off, the Millions program will return to Santa Anita for the $250,000 Oaks. The alternating pattern continues with the $250,000 Dash (Gulfstream), the $250,000 Sprint (Santa Anita), the $350,000 Filly and Mare Turf (Gulfstream), and the $750,000 Distaff (Santa Anita). The time between each Millions race will be only about 15 or 20 minutes, meaning horseplayers will need to be prepared.

The Millions races are carded as the sixth through ninth at Gulfstream, and the second through fifth at Santa Anita. There is no proposition wager tying all eight Millions races together primarily because of regulatory issues, but both tracks will offer pick four wagers on their own Millions races.

Gulfstream and Santa Anita officials have promised that simulcast monitors and announcements will keep fans closely apprised of what is happening at the other track. Both tracks have heavily promoted the Sunshine Millions, and both are expecting their live turnouts to easily exceed a typical Saturday before the Super Bowl. Gulfstream is looking for about 15,000 fans, while Santa Anita is hoping for 18,000.

All eight races are restricted to horses bred in Florida or California. Funding for the series came through a cooperative effort of racing and breeding organizations from each state, a development that Gulfstream Park president Scott Savin called "extraordinary."

Although neither state's breeding industries are considered the equal of Kentucky's, there is still a widespread feeling that Florida and California are head and head for second in the North American pecking order. Their closeness is mirrored in the remarkable level of competitiveness in all of Saturday's eight races, and none is more contentious than the Classic.

Eight of the 12 horses in the main body of the Classic field are from Florida, including four of the top five in the morning line set by Daily Racing Form national handicapper Mike Watchmaker. But perhaps the most revealing number is the lukewarm 7-2 that Watchmaker assigned the favorite, Best of the Rest, a tell-tale sign of top-to-bottom depth.

Best of the Rest has been an incredibly consistent performer for trainer Eddie Plesa, having won half of his 26 career starts and more than $650,000. As a horse who habitually employs a stalking style that often has him in prime position to win, Best of the Rest figures to be part of the picture when the Classic field turns for home.

The other major threats from Florida are The Judge Sez Who, Saint Marden, and Booklet. Meanwhile, Continental Red is the top Classic hope for California. Trained by Ian Jory, Continental Red will start from post 1 and be ridden by Pat Valenzuela, one of the nation's hottest jockeys.

"My horse couldn't be training any better," said Jory. "Getting the rail was good because we ought to be able to save some ground. If he likes this track, he should be very competitive."

The rest of the Classic field includes Long Gone Con, Slippery When Bet, and Grey Memo from California. From Florida, there is Sir Bear, Island Skipper, Nothing Flat, and Free of Love. Swift Replica, also from Florida, is the lone also-eligible.

Grey Memo may be the most live of the Classic longshots. Trained by the venerable Warren Stute, Grey Memo is a deep closer who occasionally jumps up with a huge effort. If the Classic pace is too hot - and the presence of such fast horses as Long Gone Con, Saint Marden, Booklet, and Island Skipper figures to make for an honest-to-fast pace - then it could be Grey Memo moving fastest of all at the end.

"I've got him as good as I can get him," said Stute.

Grey Memo will be ridden by Jose Santos, who just three months ago enjoyed the greatest upset of his career when winning the Breeders' Cup Classic aboard Volponi.

While the Saturday weather forecast is typical for this time of year at Santa Anita, fans at Gulfstream won't be as comfortable. The high temperature in Los Angeles is supposed to be 76, but only 65 in Miami. No rain is forecast for either track.

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