10/31/2002 12:00AM

Two new series sweeten the statebred pot


ARCADIA, Calif. - In the early 1990's, the California Cup at Santa Anita was the only destination reserved for statebreds on the annual stakes calender.

These days, things have changed. Over the next 12 months, there will be four major days set aside for statebred competition, providing owners with additional opportunities to run for top money against restricted competition.

On Saturday, the $1.325 million California Cup will be run for the 13th time and features 10 races.

For some horses, the Cal Cup is being used as a prep for two new events in coming months - the Great States Challenge at Sam Houston Race Park on Dec. 7 and the Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita on Jan. 25.

Following those events, the California Gold Rush Day at Hollywood Park will be offered for the fourth time in late April. Earlier this year, the Gold Rush Day featured $1.31 million in purses.

But unlike the California Cup and Gold Rush Day, the Great States Challenge and the Sunshine Millions are not limited to California-breds. The $1.65 million Great States Challenge features six $275,000 races that will draw horses from several states. Eight states, including California, are guaranteed a berth in each race, with the other berths for horses bred in nine other states.

The Sunshine Millions will feature eight stakes for California-breds and Florida-breds, with four races at Santa Anita and four at Gulfstream Park.

Legislation was passed earlier this year enabling the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association to help fund the two new programs with existing purse revenue. Supporters insist that the new race days combined with the existing programs in California offer an appropriate mix of competition for lucrative prize money without facing Breeders' Cup-caliber competition. In addition to those races, there were 39 stakes for California-breds throughout the state scheduled for 2002. A similar program is being planned for 2003.

"I don't think we'd like more than we've got," said owner-breeder John Harris. "It's a bit of a balancing act. If races are handicaps, some real superstar will get weighted very heavily. There's an equalizer there."

Neatly spaced throughout year

With the four major events spread across the year, owners can use those races as goals while running in open company at other times of the year. At Hollywood Park's spring-summer meeting, for example, Gold Rush day is positioned at the start of the meeting to allow statebreds to return against open company over the next 10 weeks.

The participants for the Great States Challenge will be determined in coming weeks, with several California Cup race winners expected to be among those considered.

"In my conversations with horsemen here, the interest is very high," said Doug Burge, the executive director of the breeders' association. "Depending on how the horses run on Saturday, that will dictate who our horses will be."

Hot Market, who will start for Harris in the $250,000 California Cup Classic, could be a candidate for the Great States Challenge Classic if he wins on Saturday.

"California will fill all its spots," Harris said. "It's only $275,000, and that's pretty good, but it's not a ton of money. This could be a little tricky. You want to make sure you fill your spot, but you almost need a backup if you get one guy pointing to the race and a week before he decides not to go."

The selection process itself could be tricky. Only the Best, the winner of the Sunny Slope Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 19, has been mentioned as a candidate for the $275,000 Great States Challenge Juvenile over seven furlongs. But the winning connections of Saturday's California Cup Juvenile may also express an interest in a berth.

"In that instance, we'll have to balance the Cal Cup winner versus that horse to see which horse fits at that distance," Burge said.

The purses for the Sunshine Millions are derived from the purses of both tracks, the breeding organizations in both states, and Magna Entertainment, which owns Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita.

No natural rivalry, but big fields

The concept of Florida-breds taking on California-breds could be a tough sell to everyday racing fans because there is no rivalry between the two groups. The key to the event is large fields that will prove attractive to bettors.

Six horses are expected to represent each state, but they could come from a variety of locations.

In fact, there are several notable Florida-breds racing in Southern California, including Special Matter, the winner of the Carleton Burke Handicap on turf at Santa Anita on Oct. 27. He could be considered for a $500,000 turf race over 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita that is part of the Sunshine Millions program.

"It gives Florida a bit of an edge," Harris said.

In a way, Harris and other breeders hope that the expanded opportunities will lead to increased interest in California-breds, both at sales and on the racetrack.

"The whole sport is sort of a game of dreams, where everyone dreams they will have the top horse," said Harris. "You hope to have the top horse in the world, but if you have the top horse in California, there are a lot of nice spots to run."