11/14/2002 1:00AM

Wanted: New blood in ownership


LEXINGTON, Ky. - What began with a tax break for racetracks has ended with a lucrative new Florida-bred showcase day, and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association hopes the state's whole breeding industry will reap the rewards.

Calder Race Course has promoted the Florida Million - the state's first $1 million stakes card devoted solely to Florida-bred runners - as a festival day featuring six competitive races, as well as a family-oriented event. But Richard Hancock, executive vice president of the FTBOA, knows that the target audience for Florida Million promotion goes well beyond the grandstand. As for breeders, the Florida Million is also about attracting new owners to buy and campaign Florida-bred racehorses. It is, as Hancock sees it, the classic win-win scenario for Calder and the state's breeders and owners.

"Tracks have discovered that these big promotion days drive handle and bring people to the races," Hancock said. "For us, the public will see that these horses are Florida-breds, and they'll recognize these horses' names from racing all over the nation. And it's helpful any time you can get buyers familiar with horses that are performing that well and have them identify those horses with your state."

Hancock acknowledges that the Florida-bred day has been a long time coming. But he points out that the state already offered an attractive stakes program, including its $1.2 million Florida Stallion Stakes Series, which concludes each year at Calder's Festival of the Sun in October.

Ad hoc coalition chipped in

Stallion owners and breeders fund the majority of the Florida Stallion Stakes Series through the nomination process, but in the case of the new Florida Million, the purses came about largely through cooperation by Calder, its horsemen, and the FTBOA.

When state government trimmed its parimutuel tax, the track operators, their purse funds, and the FTBOA all got a financial boost. The FTBOA, Calder, and that track's horsemen decided to use part of that dividend to build a showcase day for Florida-breds, along the lines of similar Breeders' Cup-style events for statebreds such as the California Cup, Maryland Million, and New York Showcase Day. To make it happen, the Florida breeders' organization and Calder each put up $500,000 to establish the Florida Million.

The purse money funds six races. The 1 1/16-mile Elmer Heubeck Distaff Handicap and the 1 1/8-mile Carl G. Rose Classic each have a $200,000 purse. The seven-furlong Joe O'Farrell Juvenile Fillies and Jack Price Juvenile, the six-furlong Jack Dudley Sprint Handicap, and the 1 1/8-mile Bonnie Heath Turf Cup each carry $150,000 purses.

Before the Florida Million, the state's incentive program focused primarily on owners by adding awards for statebred winners in open company. That program continues to work well, Hancock said.

"We generally like open competition, because we think that makes a stronger breeding program," he said. "Florida always has had pretty good recognition from buyers across the country, so we didn't want to create a very restricted statebred racing program. And, in the summer, when 80 percent of the horses running in Florida are Florida-breds anyway, it wouldn't make sense to run a lot of restricted races. But with the advent of the Cal Cup and the Maryland Million and days like that, we decided we really would like to have a special day to promote interest in Florida-breds."

Magna gets with program

The Florida Million isn't the only vehicle to do that. Immediately before the FTBOA and Calder announced the inaugural Million, Magna International - which owns Gulfstream Park in Miami and Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles - announced plans for a $3.6 million program called the Sunshine Millions. That event, set for Jan. 25, 2003, will card four races at each track on a single afternoon. The races will be open to Florida-breds and California-breds.

And Hancock believes that the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Great State Challenge, which will match up statebreds from around the country in races at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas on Dec. 7, will also put Florida-breds in the spotlight before a national audience.

But the home audience, where Florida residents might be converted into buyers of Florida-breds, remains an important one. Hancock said the FTBOA hopes to expand the Florida Million idea and is talking to Tampa Bay Downs officials about developing a Florida-bred day worth $500,000 there.

The investment, Hancock says, is well worth it to promote Florida's breeding and racing, both to racing fans and to potential buyers.