Saturday picks

It's the last weekend in January, the dreaded week off between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. No football to bet on? So what? There's plenty of action in South Florida and Southern California, where the eight-race, $3.6-million Sunshine Millions for California- and Florida-breds will be staged Saturday at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita. NBC will show four races live from 4:30-6 p.m. EST, including the final ride of Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey's career, on trainer Bill Mott's Silver Tree in the $500,000 Cloverleaf Farms Turf.

At Bally's Las Vegas, 225 handicappers will be battling for first prize of $250,000 and the title of Handicapper of the Year in the seventh annual National Handicapping Championship. How these master players do in the Sunshine Millions probably will have a lot to say about who wins and who walks away mumbling "Woulda, could, shoulda."

As usual, the Sunshine Millions features large, contentious fields and difficult puzzles. I hope I got a good read on three of the races, one at Gulfstream and two at Santa Anita. I hope to do as well as I did last week, when your favorite cyberspace tout handed out a pair of 7-2 winners, Fort Prado at Louisiana Downs and Smokey Glacken at Gulfstream.

Gulfstream, 6th race, Sunshine Millions Dash, 4-year-olds and up (6 furlongs)
I won't be betting on Bailey's mount, Silver Tree, in the Turf, because he'll be 3-5 or less in a field he lays over on paper. But I think Bailey is on a live longshot here in Thor's Echo, whose 10-1 morning line seems way out of line. Be happy with 9-2, as long as he runs well, as I think he will. Thor's Echo was third last time in the 7-furlong, Grade I Malibu at Santa Anita, where he chased runner-up Attila's Storm, a stakes-winner who would be 1-2 in here. Thor's Echo has enough speed to get position from the inside on a track where that profile often wins. Turning back a furlong also should help. Nightmare Affair has good figs and usually is close but he rarely wins. Mister Fotis probably will be overplayed off his front-running win last out at Calder, but it's very unlikely he'll get loose on the lead again.

1. Thor's Echo 2. Nightmare Affair 3. Mister Fotis

3rd race, Santa Anita, Sunshine Millions Dash, 3-year-olds (6 furlongs)
Da Stoops looks like a solid play. He should be able to get the lead from the rail and clear, and he's 1-for-2 at Santa Anita. Turning back is a bonus after his two solid runs at 7 furlongs, a wire-to-wire, big-figure win last out and a second. Brite Maneuvers is 3-for-4 in Arcadia, with his loss coming to Da Stoops. The wild card is second-time starter Plagiarist, a runaway winner in a brilliant 1:08 4/5 last month at Hollywood in his career debut for trainer Doug O'Neill. Unless he regresses, he'll be in the mix here, and it would be no shock if he turns out to be clearly the best of this group.

1. Da Stoops 2. Brite Maneuvers 3. Plagiarist

5th race, Santa Anita, Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf (1 1/8 miles)
Valentine Dancer will go for a threepeat in this race, and I think she'll be denied. Valentine Dancer narrowly held on last year in this event at Gulfstream, where 6-5 favorite Moscow Burning was "bumped hard on the far turn," according to the chart, and fell short by three-quarters of a length when fifth. Both will take a lot of money, with Moscow Burning the likely choice, but I like Dancing General. She lost by less than a length two starts back to Moscow Burning, and she could be sitting on a big effort in her 4-year-old debut. Valentine's Dancer and Moscow Burning are 6-year-olds, and they may have lost a step at the same time that Dancing General is coming into her prime.

1. Dancing General 2. Moscow Burning 3. Valentine Dancer