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.
In an election year Governor Brown is now faced with something of a political dilemma. Two years ago he was ready to sign a bill giving additional days to the fiats, but at the last minute the trotting people pushed through a clause authorizing night racing. Brown went on record as saying, "There will never be night racing in California while I am governor." Last week, admitting that he had yet to read the Stanford report, he softened that stand a bit, but not much: "It would take an awful lot of argument to get me to support Sunday racing and less to support night racing, but I'm generally opposed to them."
Still, most California horsemen believe that ultimately the state will approve both. If Brown wants to increase tax revenues from racing (and what governor doesn't?), it is conceivable that next year Santa Anita and Hollywood will each get 75 days and Del Mar 55.
On a visit to Santa Anita last week to watch his leased Kentucky-bred Bold Bidder easily win Saturday's $134,500 Charles H. Strub Stakes, Lexington Breeder John Gaines agreed with the local horsemen that there is not enough California racing to sustain an economical breeding industry. He also said something Rex Ellsworth has long insisted upon: "Good horses can be bred anywhere." Then, with an immodest flourish, Gaines added, "But you've got to be where your sires are, and now that's Kentucky. If, on the other hand, Hancock, Combs and I took all our stallions out of Kentucky to some other place, the whole picture of Kentucky breeding would change overnight."
One scene that has changed drastically, if not overnight, is that of the once-fabulous Ellsworth empire. Speaking for Ellsworth (who is off on another buying mission, this time to Australia), Tenney claimed that the stable's current decline has been caused by a combination of circumstances. Nearly one entire crop was lost through virus abortion, Khaled got older, the truly promising stallion Nigromante died suddenly, and his replacements, Toulouse Lautrec and Prince Royal, are not yet established. One Ellsworth critic does not let the cowboy team off so easily: "They've had bad luck, sure, but also bad management. They still have the material there, and if they ever got smart they'd kill us all. What sort of management is it when your trainer is away on roundup until a week before Santa Anita opens, instead of getting his horses ready to run?"
To which Tenney answers, "Roundup is just as much a part of my life as training, and it always will be. I'd say that what has hurt us, in addition to bad luck, is that we have so many horses we have to sell. Any time you sell it is bound to have an effect on the stable."
Be that as it may, Ellsworth and Tenney do not promise to set the world afire again for a while. Their best 3-year-olds, Vague Image and Embassy, do not appear to be a threat to Saber Mountain or to the three (all Cal-breds, incidentally) who finished behind him in the San Vicente: Ri Tux, Wingover and Triple Tux. Among others who may show to a better advantage when asked to go around two turns in the mile-and-a-sixteenth San Felipe on February 22 are Hill Clown, Taipan, Fleet Shoe and, of course, Port Wine, who has yet to be beaten in six California starts.
In the meantime all California racing interests can be thankful that if this is not the year of outstanding California horses, it may yet be the year they get legislative help with their problems. In the words of the Stanford Research report, the aim of the governor and his influential horse racing board should be to foster "a more soundly structured industry, higher quality of horses and greater financial health."