Leaving California - by Lenny Shulman

The West Coast has applied a choke hold on the 3-year-old male division for the past three years, yet it annually continues to let its stars escape to Eastern climes without a fight following the Triple Crown series.

Two years ago dual-classic winner California Chrome did not race in his namesake state between the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) in April and the Nov. 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, who keyed a California trifecta (Firing Line and Dortmund) in the 2015 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), was based at Santa Anita but never raced in the Golden State as a 3-year-old.

California-trained Nyquist and Exaggerator filled the Derby exacta this year after spending the winter at Santa Anita (and in Nyquist’s case, Florida), but it appears neither will race on the Pacific shores again until the Breeders’ Cup. Throw in superstar 3-year-old filly Songbird, whose June 18 score in the Summertime Oaks (gr. II) will likely mark her last Golden State trip to post before the World Championships, and you have an exodus from California not seen in scope since a procession of moving vans and U-Haul trucks carted thousands of jittery residents from the state following the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

So, what is behind this reversal of fortune since Al Jolson sang “California, Here I Come” in 1924? Money and opportunity. California’s premier summer meet at Del Mar, which caters to many other divisions (2-year-olds and turf runners of both genders, in particular), has virtually no program for 3-year-olds and does not have the money to begin instituting one now. Likewise, once racing moves back to Santa Anita in September, there is nothing whatsoever for sophomores, who would be expected at that point to face older horses in the Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I). Santa Anita ran its one open summer dirt race for sophomores, the $100,000 Affirmed Stakes (gr. III), July 2.

According to Del Mar vice president of racing Tom Robbins, when Del Mar first considered carding races for 3-year-olds years ago, it ultimately deferred to the plethora of sophomore races available in other parts of the country. Several of the racetracks back east have since increased their purses via alternative modes of gaming, leaving an abyss between those purses and what California would be able to muster.

“To put up any kind of money, we would be stealing from another division,” said Robbins. “Plus, our horsemen, more than any others, are apt to travel and seek opportunities elsewhere. If we had NYRA-type money, we could do something. But with the existing opportunities elsewhere, it’s likely we’d end up with a five-horse field and not a very good race anyway. People would duck the good horses in California to run in West Virginia for $750,000.”

Robbins’ point is well-taken. The line-up for 3-year-olds around the country is a murderer’s row of extravagant purses. From late June through late September, horsemen can choose to run their 3-year-olds in the Ohio Derby ($500,000), Iowa Derby (gr. III, $250,000), Indiana Derby (gr. II, $500,000), Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II, $600,000), betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (gr. I, $1 million), West Virginia Derby (gr. II, $750,000), Travers Stakes (gr. I, $1.25 million), Super Derby (gr. III, $400,000), and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II, $1 million). Del Mar’s one open race for 3-year-olds on dirt is the Shared Belief Stakes (formerly the El Cajon), this year to be run Aug. 26 for $100,000.

Having noted all that, California should do whatever it takes to  write competitive races for sophomores, one at Del Mar and another at Santa Anita, where millions were recently spent on rooms with chandeliers.

“We have the discussion every year about writing races for 3-year-olds,” Robbins said. “I would love to do it. It’s a subject that isn’t going away.”

Unfortunately, the good 3-year-olds are. While Del Mar this year may have the good fortune to host older headliners California Chrome and Beholder, Nyquist and Songbird will be following American Pharoah out of town.

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