SI Vault
Whitney Tower
February 07, 1966
Florida tracks already boast a strong pair of Derby contenders, but California has little to offer. However, a growing protest by horsemen may bring remedies in both racing and breeding
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 07, 1966

Year Of Drought In The West

Florida tracks already boast a strong pair of Derby contenders, but California has little to offer. However, a growing protest by horsemen may bring remedies in both racing and breeding

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The search is on in California for a logical Kentucky Derby rival for Florida-based Graustark and Buckpasser, but the pickings are mighty slim. Santa Anita has one of the poorest 3-year-old divisions in years. Last week, following the running of the seven-furlong San Vicente, a home favorite finally emerged. Named Saber Mountain, he is a spirited son of Bagdad who has now won all four of his races. "We may have everyone's number out here," said Charlie Whittingham, who trains Saber Mountain for Oilman Howard Keck, "but we don't know about the rest of the country—yet."

What the rest of the country knows—and what a lot of California racing people would like to ignore but can't—is that Saber Mountain is no more a California product than a frosted mint julep. Out of the Nasrullah mare Gal I Love, Keck's promising colt was foaled at Bull Hancock's Claiborne Farm deep in Kentucky's bluegrass.

It is natural enough that Kentucky, where half a billion dollars is invested in some 35,000 horses, should continue to lead in the production of top horses. But what comes as a distinct shock is that California—second only to Kentucky in the number of Thoroughbred foals produced—finds the structure of its own enormous breeding industry in a serious and drastic decline. Racing factions representing Thoroughbreds, harness horses and quarter horses are, more than ever before, at each other's throats in a complicated series of political power plays. Meanwhile, as Governor Pat Brown and his legislature contemplate some action to revitalize racing, leading stallions and mares are leaving by the vanloads to enrich the studs of other states, most notably Kentucky. Even Rex Ellsworth, the cowboy owner-breeder-trainer who, with Mesh Tenney, was supposed to "break up the game" with the greatest stable assembled since the heyday of the late Aga Khan, is having a disastrous season.

The reasons for this decline are many and varied, but basically the fault is that the state is attempting to build an industry on only 110 days of top-quality racing, 55 days each at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Both of these plants have the attractiveness and the facilities to lead the country's tracks in attendance and average mutuel handle. But their limited seasons, separated by two months in the spring and five months in the fall and winter, deprive horsemen of the incentive to plow money back into local breeding programs. The easier and more profitable way for a California owner who pops up with a top homebred is to sell him where the ready money is. "A man would be a fool," says one horseman, "to stand a horse in California for $2,500 if he can stand him in Kentucky for $10,000."

Recently the Stanford Research Institute was paid $195,000 by various racing groups to turn out an 850-page survey reporting pretty much what racing people knew in the first place. It announced that of the 569 California racing days in 1964, at 19 meetings of Thoroughbreds, quarter horses and harness horses, only 51.8% of the days were allocated to Thoroughbred meetings. These, in turn, generated 75.6% of all the pari-mutuel wagering. In addition, the California horse business represents a total investment of nearly $200 million—of which Thoroughbred breeding and racing stables account for more than 71%.

Considering such figures, the Stanford researchers indicated possible remedies. Among them:

1) Additional racing days in the Los Angeles area, where dates are still approximately what they were in the late '30s although the population has nearly quadrupled.

2) Complete reorganization of racing in the San Francisco area, with the possibility that the three existing associations, Tanforan, Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, would be merged.

3) Harness racing at night.

4) Sunday racing.

Continue Story
1 2