Guest Blog: The Decline of California Racing

By Jordan Miller

Despite the title of this blog and the material which follows, I consider myself an unapologetic supporter of California racing. I was first exposed to racing as a teenager while living in California in 1989, and started attending the track on a regular basis later that year. I lived in California until 1999, when I relocated to Michigan, but I continued to attend races in southern California during my many visits. I returned to live in southern California in late 2009, and attend the races now about once a week.

Since my return to California, I have found myself questioning the quality of racing in the state, particularly at the grade I level, and wondering if it has declined since the years of my youth. Cursory reviews of my memory suggested the horses, jockeys, trainers, and owners of today compare unfavorably with those of 20 years ago. Is my memory faulty? Perhaps I have inflated the racing heroes of my youth? Further research was most definitely needed.

There is no one simple way to compare the quality of different periods of racing. “Racing quality” is a rather amorphous concept, and is not easily operationalized or measured. Thus, I have allowed myself certain liberties. At the most basic level, a measurement of “racing quality” must try to capture the quality of horses running at a particular time as well as the quality of the human connections. For the sake of simplicity, I have chosen to measure the quality of the horses in these periods by looking at the number of gr. I winners and Eclipse Award winning horses in the major California races (Hollywood Gold Cup, Santa Anita Handicap, Santa Anita Derby, and Charlie Whittingham Handicap), as well as the Beyer Speed Figures for these races. To measure the quality of the human connections, I analyze the percentage of California-based trainers, owners, and jockeys at the top of the national rankings in the early 90s and, contrastingly, 2010.

If viewing the quality of Hollywood Gold Cup fields by the number of Eclipse Award winners and gr. I winners that have started, there can be little doubt concerning a decline over the last 35 years. From 1976 until 1999, a span of 24 fields, the Hollywood Gold Cup featured at least one Eclipse winner in every year except '80, '83, '92, '96, and '97. So, in 19 of the 24 runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup at least one Eclipse winner was present in the starting gate, for a total of 21 different champions including 8 horses that were named HoY the same year they ran in the Gold Cup.

In contrast, since 1999, exactly ZERO Eclipse champions have made a start in the Gold Cup! ZERO! This is a staggering drop-off in talent for a race that had attracted at least one start from 23 of the Blood-Horse Top 100 (of the 20th Century).

As it concerns the number of gr. I winners, in the eleven runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup from 2000-2010, there were 30 different gr. I winners including 14 multiple gr. I winners. Yet, this pales to the nine runnings from 1990-1999 which featured 40 gr. I winners and 28 multiple gr. I winners.

A decline over time in the quality of fields is also apparent when looking at Santa Anita Handicap, Whittingham Handicap, and Santa Anita Derby.

For the Big 'Cap, the runnings from 2000-2010 featured two champions, 38 gr. I winners, and 20 multiple gr. I winners. However, the runnings from 1990-1999 featured seven champions, 43 gr. I winners, and 28 multiple gr. I winners. Yet, even better, the years from 1980-1989 featured 11 champions, 50 gr. I winners, and 29 multiple gr. I winners. For the Whittingham Handicap, 2000-2010 featured 0 champions, 25 gr. I winners, and 14 multiple gr. I winners, while 1990-1999 featured four champions, 30 gr. I winners, and 17 multiple gr. I winners.

Finally, for the Santa Anita Derby, 2000-2010 featured five champions, 24 gr. I winners, and 13 multiple gr. I winners, 1990-1999 featured eight champions, 29 gr. I winners, and 17 multiple gr.I winners, while 1980-1989 featured six champions, 32 gr.I winners, and 19 multiple gr.I winners. Perhaps of even more importance, in 11 of the 17 years from 1985-2001, the Santa Anita Derby produced the winner of a Triple Crown race, a total of 12 different Santa Anita Derby participants accounting for 18 Triple Crown race wins. In the 10 years since 2001, the Santa Anita Derby has produced a Triple Crown race winner only twice, a total of two horses winning two total Triple Crown races. Over the last 10 years, the Santa Anita Derby has become far less consequential as a Derby and Triple Crown prep.

Corresponding with this decrease in the quality of fields over time is a decrease in Beyer Speed Figures. From 1990-1999, the average winning Beyer for the Hollywood Gold Cup was 116.6, with eight runnings producing a winning Beyer of at least 115, and none lower than 111. Since 1999, not only has no champion started in the Hollywood Gold Cup, but the average winning Beyer is only 109. In 8 of the last 12 Gold Cups the winning Beyer is 111 or lower, with four of the last five producing a Beyer of 106 or lower.

The decline in the Beyers for the Big Cap and Santa Anita Derby is equally significant. From 1991-2004, the average winning Beyer of the Big Cap was 115.6, with the lowest a 108 and 12 of 14 at least 113. In comparison, the average winning Big Cap Beyer for 2005-2011 is 106.5, with four of the seven winning Beyers below 108 (including a 100 for the 2011 edition), and only one higher than 111. For the Santa Anita Derby, the average winning Beyer for the productive years of 1990-2001 was 106 while the average winning Beyer for the 10 editions since is just 99.8.

Analysis of the changes in the national standings for leading trainers, jockeys, and owners also suggest that the quality of racing in California has declined over the last 20 years. In 1990, two of the top three, three of the top four, four of the top six, and nine of the top 15 trainers (purses) in North America were based primarily in California (Lukas, Whittingham, Mc Anally, Mandella, Gary Jones, Hollendorfer, Van Berg, Frankel, Brian Mayberry). In 2010, only 4 of the top 15 were California based (Baffert, Hollendorfer, Sadler, O’Neil). In 1990, 11 of the top 30 owners kept a strong California string (Golden Eagle Farm; Overbrook; Jan, Mace, and Samantha Siegel; Jack Kent Cooke; Allen Paulson; Frank and Janice Whitham; Jerry Moss; Clover Racing Stable; Gretzky and Summa Stables; Verne Winchell; Martin Wygod). In 2010, the number of leading owners with a strong presence in California was down to about five (WinStar, Zayat, Jerry Moss, Pegram, Jay Em Ess). The decline in prominent trainers and owners is especially significant because fewer top trainers and owners typically means fewer top horses.

The statistics paint a less severe decline in terms of the quality of the California jockey colony. In 1990, seven of the top 13 money-winning jockeys were based in California, while in 2010 it was six of 14. However, the Cali jockey colony in 1990 was made up largely of certain Hall of Famers (Stevens, Mc Carron, Delahoussaye, Pincay), whereas the current Cali jockey colony is dominated by extremely promising riders but ones not quite fully established as national stars (Rosario, Bejarano, Garcia, Sutherland).

Naturally, analyzing just elite stakes races is not going to be enough to determine whether there has been a decline in racing across class levels. However, most observers consider average field size to be a good indicator of the strength of racing, and on the subject of field size, there can be little doubt that the decreasing size of fields and corresponding horse shortages across class levels in California (down to 7.23 starters/race at the 2010 Hollywood Park Fall Meet), reflects a declining product.

All of the above statistics beg the question, why? Why has the California racing product declined, particularly at the highest levels? And is the decline in California simply part of a larger national decline? Unfortunately, there is not enough space to properly answer these questions and explore the reasons behind the apparent decline, so I will leave it to you the readers. Suffice to say, the stagnation and decline in purses, which are, in turn, caused by a decline in attendance and handle (below pace with inflation), are key to any answer. And while California and other areas experience declining purses (especially when compared to inflation), they have increasing difficulty competing with those tracks, both domestically and internationally, that are benefitting from an infusion of money from casinos or increase handle. Combine that with breeding problems (lack of soundness), medication issues, and demographic changes that have resulted in the death or retirement of prominent trainers, owners, and breeders, and areas in North America like California face a challenging future.

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