01/29/2008 12:00AM

Under Santa Anita's big top


ARCADIA, Calif. - Before last Saturday's sixth version of the Sunshine Millions at Santa Anita mercifully fades from the mind, a few memories linger.

The "California vs. Florida" banner draped on the grandstand facade said it all. It is a natural rivalry, of course, and the stakes were high. By the end of the eight-race program, horses bred in the Sunshine State had won seven - a real squeaker - which means that Florida retains possession of O.J. Simpson for another year.

The lone Cal-bred winner was at least a thriller. Bob Black Jack, a 3-year-old who was bought for $4,500 as a yearling, won the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash over a packed and scraped version of the wreckage formerly known as Cushion Track. By stopping the timer in 1:06.53 for the six furlongs, Bob Black Jack shaded the world record of 1:06.60 set by G Malleah, the pride of Arizona, in winning the Grand Canyon Handicap at Turf Paradise in April 1995.

Less than an hour after the Dash was run, and quite by coincidence, Turf Paradise presented the G Malleah Handicap, which was won by the Cal-bred Trail This in a reasonable 1:08.40. Presenting the trophy was Frank Covello, an Arizona state steward and trainer of G Malleah through a career of 61 starts.

"I didn't have the heart to tell Frank that G Malleah's world record had just been broken," confessed Eugene Joyce, Turf Paradise general manager.

World records have been set over a wide variety of surface types through the years, from drought-baked grass to dirt rolled hard as adobe. Santa Anita management is clearly embarrassed by the rapid times - there was no mention of a world record in publicity reports on the Dash - and perhaps they should be. Still, the record exists in real time, and there is a spot in the American Racing Manual reserved for Bob Black Jack . . . if the record holds up to the end of the year.

But why not hype the clockings? The Sunshine Millions empties a lot of promotional budget, anyway, led this year by giveaway beach towels, a hopeful gesture, especially in the face recent ocean temperatures down around 55 degrees.

At Santa Anita, there was a modeling contest for young women who were asked to promote Frank's Energy Drink by wearing stylized lederhosen. At one point, when the models assembled in the winner's circle to be introduced to the crowd, the house that Doc Strub built suddenly was transformed into a taping of "The Man Show," complete with wolf whistles and loud, wishful thinking.

"Be careful," warned an older fellow in a red windbreaker and whiskers, "don't tease the tiger." He was later awarded best line of the day.

Eventually, the women and their lederhosen decamped to the infield, where a heavy police and security presence was in place for a beer festival. The last time Santa Anita had one of these, a couple of scuffles broke out, noses were bloodied, and the infield was cleared. This time, track officials were taking no chances. Even the KROQ radio DJ on the scene was pitching in with a public service announcement

"If you've had a little too much beer, go grab a Frank's Energy Drink," he urged. "It's free, and there are three flavors!"

The entertainment actually began early Saturday morning, with security personnel lining the rails of the main track at the mile and one-quarter chute. This was to prevent curious owners and trainers from setting foot on an artificial surface that had been poked, prodded, and scraped to death, in an attempt to make it reasonably safe and raceable for the big day.

"It was pretty funny," said trainer Gary Mandella, who was not laughing. "We talked about all of us making a rush for it, just to see what they'd do. There was an announcement over the loudspeaker that any trainer walking out there would be cited."

Back in Florida, Bill Mott heard this news from Leana Willaford, his assistant at ground zero, and shook his head, or worse. Mott had two horses in the Santa Anita races - Go Between in the Sunshine Millions Classic and Quite a Bride in the Filly and Mare Turf - and the idea that the racing strip was even temporarily out of bounds to inspection was just this side of nuts.

"The day before, when the main track was like oatmeal and the rain was hitting the grass, it looked like we'd be scratching them both," Mott said Monday morning from Florida.

"I heard one trainer got fined for walking out on the track," Mott added.

Was that something he might have tried, had he been on the scene?

"Probably," the Hall of Famer replied.

In the end, Mott was more than ably represented by Willaford, who first saddled Quite a Bride to upset Nashoba's Key in the $500,000 Filly and Mare Turf, and then came right back to win the $1 million Classic with Go Between, a son of Point Given making a rare non-turf start to win by two in a track record 1:45.64.

"That's actually the second million-dollar race he's won," Mott said, recalling Go Between's victory in the 2006 Virginia Derby. "He's obviously a grass horse, but when he trained on Polytrack at Keeneland last fall, he went so well we tried him in the Fayette, and he won. He's a horse who needs a firm surface, only I'm not sure he needs it that firm."