How Heavy a Load Can California Chrome Carry?

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Victor Espinoza celebrates California Chrome's win in the 2014 KY Derby Victor Espinoza celebrates California Chrome's win in the 2014 KY Derby

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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  • Ida Lee

    Chrome is the only brilliant star in a darken sky of doom which is California…

    • Kris

      Ida, with all due respect, it is true that Cali has a number of problems, however, states with gaming subsidies are in worse shape. California’s purse structure is fairly stable and that cannot be said for states relying on those slots to fund purses. Because there aren’t any gaming subsidies, California has been forced to face the problems that plaque our states racing and breeding industry. That is way more than can be said of just about every other racing state. With Hollywood gone the racing side of the sport is now stable and the breeding/horse farm side can be addressed. When all is said and done, California may be one of the few racing states left. Too bad Ray didn’t mention any positives for California racing because there actually are a few!

      • nu-fan

        Kris: Thank you! Yes, California does have its problems but, at least, it has corrected its budget. And as long as Gov. Brown doesn’t wait until election time to grant those big special interests, the state is safe. But, we know that he is having to fight his own party with this. They all want a big piece of that surplus that is being withheld for that “rainy” day, which comes on a regular basis. Now, if we can get Gov. Brown to forget that bullet train project…so many other better uses for that huge budget set aside for that project. Besides, if that train ever gets off the ground, it will take decades and, by that time, we will all be calling Scottie to beam us wherever we want to go.

      • Vudu

        Its the drug dealer business model – in states that are forced to advertise gambling.

        Interesting: If you want one article to tie it all into a ribbon,
        then you want a one-article magazine, don’t you?

        There wouldn’t be detail, just a sketch & a proposed solution.
        There won’t be any content for the next article.
        Not on this topic.

        There may be positives,
        but why ping the writer for what hasn’t yet been written?
        You haven’t written them in your post either.

  • Richard C

    Hasn’t the industry – nationally and regionally – been down this path so many times before? Once the cheering ends and the win tickets are cashed, it won’t be one “Super Horse” dragging the sport out of the ever-expanding pit a quicksand…..that is up to “Mortal Humans” to begin thinking forward….and not lamenting about how it was so long ago.

    • nu-fan

      You’re right that it won’t be one Super Horse. But, perhaps, it is a step forward. This is a sport that needs a lot of fixes and from more than just one group of people. Will it happen? I don’t know but would like to see the decline halted. I haven’t seen so much attention paid to one horse in the past few years and it may generate the publicity to have the public turn its eye toward this sport.

  • vinceNYC

    In 2 days we will be speaking of the brilliance of Social Inclusion

    • Susanne Conway

      Please update us all on your prognostication in 8 hours.

      • vinceNYC

        I will,,,,,Inclusion / ARod…….4 of the last 5 derby winners floundered in the Preakness

        • Andy in the desert

          Err….NOT!
          SI will be a formidable horse in the future. He didn’t have the seasoning, nor the foundation, to beat CC (11 starts) and ROC (10 starts). Hopefully his foot issue will not be an Achilles heel in the future, though in his PP’s for his 3 races it said fb. Today I noticed there were 4 wraps. Not a good sign in my estimation.
          Hopefully these two tough losses won’t sour him.
          His trainer should give him a rest now b/c of that foot. Let it totally heal and come back in the fall.

          • lawrence

            when I saw the 4 wraps I knew then what I knew before…no way.

        • lawrence

          lmao

    • not

      laughable…thank you i needed that :)

      • vinceNYC

        I know …CC is the next secretariat because he ran a horribly slow derby….One year ago ORB was being deigned a super horse…..what is laughable exactly?

        • vinceNYC

          got a good trip….best horse won

          • Andy in the desert

            CC is not Secretariat. But he’s shown he’s good enough for this years 3year old crop.

            I’m sure Art will watch him carefully and hopefully take a page out of Laz’s book and just gallop CC two miles (to give him a bit more wind) up to the Belmont. Old school.

            Tonalist (awesome Peter Pan but who did he beat? With only 4 starts I view him as the next Social Inclusion in the Belmont), Wicked Strong (a win and a 2nd @ Belmont as a 2 year old) and maybe Command Curve are sharpening their swords to combat the champion.

        • nu-fan

          Or, maybe, the rest of the field was awfully slow. Why go for a speed record with the Triple Crown on the line? Save the horse the unnecessary stress just to dazzle the crowd. Concentrate on the road ahead.

        • lawrence

          the derby speed # was bogus

          • Andy in the desert

            Yes we all know that now given what he ran in the Preakness. He lives around 105 all day long. In fact I just surprised myself by averaging his TE numbers on Chef de race dot com and it’s108.62(!!) since he won the Cal Cup 5 races ago.
            Talk about an Iron horse. He doesn’t know the word bounce. Amazing.

    • lawrence

      I just ran across this…..LMAO..how much you lose ?,,,lol

  • Dan Jividen

    Ray Paulick is right. It is naïve to think a single horse, California Chrome (or Man o’ War for that matter), can cure what ails U.S. horse racing. Perhaps a good first step would for the industry to start focusing on the quality of racing rather than the quantity?

    • J_W_C_NM

      Or focusing on getting more customers.

      • POWAYMOJO

        That’s the ends, not the means. The customer is always right. If you present a good product, people will come.

        • nu-fan

          My background is in marketing. What you stated is so very true.

    • lawrence

      quality over quantity wins everytime

  • Wayne

    Cutting Rudi Groothedde and his team at CTBA, was a mistake. They have been California breeding’s loudest voice.

  • Bob C

    California is not alone. The president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation stated that their foal crop was only about 400 in 2013. He went on to say that it will be extremely difficult to fill races two or three years down the road and suggested that most likely Arlington will be the only track left standing. Several Illinois horsemen have relocated their operations to Indiana and more will either follow or fold up their tent altogether.

  • Ben

    Those in charge of Blood-Horse have taken it from being a great magazine to being a pamphlet.

    Was the captain if the Titanic not available?

    • Richard C

      Advertising dried up — but that downward spiral began a number of years ago.

    • Vudu

      I have never read it.
      Do people read anymore?

  • Bob C

    7000 licensed owners but the “California Thoroughbred” magazine distributes less than 1500 copies. Talk about apathy!

  • Concerned Observer

    The “powers that be” in the industry are totally focussed on attracting billionaires to buy pricey yearlings. The concept that a decline in owners from 9000 to 7000 could eventually hurt the sport overall seems to be beyond their comprehension. This sport has always had a few billionaires…they come and they too soon die. But the thousands, and thousands of owners, most comfortably wealthy, that own a few horses, but are careful with the buck, is the backbone of the industry. Unfortunatey, the industry has little time, and almost no respect, for that type of owner. Owners drive the market for horses, thus the decline in mares bred which drives the numbers of stallions. And foals raised drives field size for bettors.

  • Vudu

    Its a good article.
    Certainly one horse, one focal point can’t carry it. Why would it need to?

    Next question: Why is the industry declining?
    Is California any different than anywhere else in the country?

  • Go Chrome

    I don’t like having to bring politics into this topic, but since everything in life IS political, it seems kind of obvious that CA and IL seem to be in worse shape because those are both states dominated by big spending liberals and those states are having big economic problems across the board, not just in horse racing.
    You can hear the exact same discussion on Squawk Box on CNBC about all the other businesses who have left the state of California because of high taxes and regulations. (Toyota and Ameriflight being 2 of the latest to move headquarters from CA to TX.)
    I have to wonder how that has also affected the racing/breeding industry, with workers comp insurance, labor costs, etc. Now everybody is going to have to suffer paying high insurance premiums thanks to the ACA or either pay high penalty taxes for not carrying health insurance. That can’t be good for any operation in racing or breeding that is barely scraping by already.
    The best thing that could happen for horse racing, as with most businesses, would be for politicians to get out of the way and stop screwing up the economy as a whole. Horse breeders shouldn’t feel too bad, since the birth rate of the human population is also down with the lousy economy of the last few years.

    • Birdy2

      As a racehorse owner based in Texas, I’m here to say that your hypothesis about conservative state government equaling a better TB industry is wrong. Racing is all but dead in Texas. When the TxRC held its first horsemen’s meeting back in 2010 to discuss cuts in race dates, we all walked into the meeting — and they handed us maps to Arkansas and Louisiana. No, I am not kidding nor exaggerating. We got bottles of Lone Star Water and maps to guide us out of Texas. Conservative equals religious. If you think that the born-agains and evangelicals who run this state want to see a gambling-related business prosper, wrong again. The abysmal state of the industry in Texas is a res ipsa loquitur.

      • lawrence

        bull

  • Garrett Redmond

    This article is now too stale to be today’s headline. Editorial staff should “get on the ball”.

  • rderrever

    “How did you go broke?” I asked Bill. “Two ways,” he replied. “Gradually then suddenly.”

    Hemingway’s quote was neve more apt than the moronic manager’s of the California breeding industry who have combined with the owners (as the article notes they are basically one and the same) to slit their own throats with nepotism, thievery and a “screw everyone else” mentality.

    Now that the chickens are coming home to roost and there’s a phony panic that is disgusting.

  • Bellwether

    The present powers that be in “The Game” couldn’t promote ice water in hell…Book that!!!…

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