Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome will tote 126 pounds to the post in Saturday's Preakness Stakes from Pimlico racecourse in Maryland, but the California-bred colt is carrying so much more than that.
Some who have seen horse racing's decline in popularity over the last two decades are hoping – naively in my opinion – that the son of Lucky Pulpit can help lift the sport back to its glory days, if only he can win the Preakness and June 7 Belmont and become the first Triple Crown winner Affirmed in 1978.
On a regional scale, some horsemen in California are counting on Steve Coburn and Perry Martin's homebred colt to revitalize a beleaguered breeding industry that has been in free-fall over the last decade.
How challenging is the current climate for California breeders?
–The number of mares bred to California stallions in 2013 was 2,353, a decline of 43 percent since 2008. It's down 58 percent since 5,593 mares were bred to California stallions in 2000. There were 6,650 mares bred to California stallions in 1992, nearly three times as many as today. It's declined nine consecutive years.
–There were 715 Thoroughbred stallions in California in 1992, a number that has fallen to 150 in 2013.
–California's percentage of the North American foal crop is at an historic low: 7.3 percent. It was over 11 percent 20 years ago.
–The California Thoroughbred Breeders Association closed down production of its magazine, the “California Thoroughbred,” firing three longtime employees and outsourcing the work to Blood-Horse Publications in Kentucky, where the regional magazine will now be published. The three Arcadia-based employees had been with the CTBA for a combined 73 years. They were shocked to learn – just five days before California Chrome was trying to become the first California-bred to win the Kentucky Derby since 1962 – that they were out of a job, effective immediately.
One of those employees was South African native Rudi Groothedde, the magazine's managing editor. In his final column, written prior to the shutdown under the headline “The Thrill of a Lifetime,” Groothedde reminisced about the wonderful experiences he's had in California, with nothing exceeding the joy of watching California Chrome emerge as the Kentucky Derby favorite.
Like everything else in California racing and breeding (with the exception of racing dates and takeout rates), the magazine has been declining in numbers. Fewer ads, fewer pages, lower distribution (now less than 1,500 copies are printed). Despite the challenging economics, the magazine was profitable, and its quality – befitting a publication about to celebrate its 75th anniversary – remained high, winning the General Excellence Award from American Horse Publications in 2013.
But closing a division of the CTBA and outsourcing magazine production is only a small issue compared to the other challenges the California Thoroughbred industry is facing.
It's lost two major racetracks, Bay Meadows in Northern California and Betfair Hollywood Park in the Los Angeles area, along with the Los Angeles County Fair meet at Fairplex Park in Pomona. Numerous breeding farms have closed. The CTBA's once-successful yearling sale at Del Mar deteriorated in quality and eventually disappeared. Field sizes are low and there has been resistance to reducing the number of racing dates.
The decline in the number of California-breds means racing secretaries will have fewer horses to fill races. Joe Morris, president of Thoroughbred Owners of California, estimates that Cal-breds account for 2.5 races per day in Southern California. He is concerned about the decline in the overall Thoroughbred population in California – not just Cal-breds – and in the reduction of licensed owners. Their ranks have declined from about 9,000 to 7,000 over the last decade. It's important to remember that many owners, like Steve Coburn and Perry Martin of California Chrome fame, often become breeders. To up the number of licensed owners, Morris said he is pushing to spend as much as possible of the California Marketing Committee's $1.8 million budget on bringing more horses and owners to California. Funding comes from purses and racetrack commissions.
“We don't think there's anything more important than horse recruitment,” Morris said.
In the meantime, it's all about California Chrome, who if nothing else has brought some pride back to the Golden State.
“I think things are stabilizing out here,” Morris said. “California Chrome has been big.”
How big remains to be seen. Can he carry an entire industry?
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