10/17/2004 11:00PM

Cal Cup's ups - and downs

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ARCADIA, Calif. - For those who prefer to view the glass as half full, the California Cup festival at Santa Anita on Saturday offered an entertaining program of 10 races populated by 90 runners who had the good dramatic sense to produce three nose-bobbing finishes and three more that came down to less than one length, much to the delight of the 24,450 fans at the track and the thousands more who participated via simulcast. The total handle approached $16 million.

Then again, the glass tends to leak a little in light of the attendance goal for the day, which was closer to 30,000. That was a reasonable ambition, especially when compared to the crowd of more than 37,000 that showed up for the Cal Cup just three years ago. Total handle trended downward this year as well.

In his capacity as general manager of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, Doug Burge does not have much time to deal with glassware. After months of preparations for the Cal Cup, he allowed himself a little extra time getting to work Monday morning (okay, maybe 45 minutes), then dove into the pile of issues still confronting the CTBA's approximately 1,600 members, with their millions of dollars in land and bloodstock investment.

"We thought the stars were really in line this year," Burge said, offering his Cal Cup analysis. "Because there was no Breeders' Cup here, Cal Cup could be the focus of the meet. There was a premium giveaway [a blanket], a very good card, and the Bugstock party in the infield [vintage Volkswagens] that we thought could attract as many as 7,000 people alone."

The litany of reasons for depressed attendance figures is by now a familiar tune. Burge noted that Cal Cup does best when positioned after the Breeders' Cup - no matter where the Breeders' Cup is held - but this year the dates of the host Oak Tree meet made such placement impossible. The USC-Arizona State football game drew 90,000 to the Coliseum and sucked the wind out of afternoon sports television, while right next door to Santa Anita, the expanded Westfield Mall did land office business with its freshly christened entertainment complex.

At the same time, if the point of the Cal Cup was to prove that a stakes winner can come from anywhere, then the day was a success.

"The races were very competitive, and the results were very inclusionary," Burge pointed out. "No single stallion or farm dominated the day, and that has a positive effect."

In fact, a dozen different breeders produced the 12 winners of the California Cup races, run under conditions that ranged from six furlongs on the main track to 1 1/2 miles on the grass.

The best-known among them, as usual, was the Golden Eagle Farm of John and Betty Mabee, who bred the 1 1/2-mile winner Ring of Friendship. John Mabee died in 2002, but Betty Mabee was on hand Saturday to watch two of her homebred fillies, Yearly Report and Western Hemisphere, lose heartbreaking photo finishes.

The other winning breeders included Jim Vreeland, Eugene Burnison, James Weigel, Ron Gomez, John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery, Larry and Sheila Ullmann, John Zamora, Kenneth Spencer, and the partnership of Teddy Aroney and the Blooming Hills team of Ron and Fran Stolich.

Honors were spread among a dozen winning stallions, as well. Candi's Gold, Benchmark, Bold Badgett, Smokester, General Meeting, In Excess, Siberian Summer, Olympio, and Chequer all stand in California, while Alphabet Soup, sire of Cal Cup Classic winner Cozy Guy, resides in Kentucky.

As a program, the Cal Cup needs very little fine-tuning. This time next year, though, Burge and his staff will be faced with the same guessing game when it comes to public response. And it is hard to believe that an event attracting 37,000 in 2001 is that far removed from the realities of 2004, or 2005, although Burge wasn't so sure.

"Everything is changing so fast in the racing economy," he said. "There is steady pressure to remain competitive. Maybe we just haven't taken in the full impact of account wagering yet. Even though the ontrack numbers weren't quite what we'd hoped for, Cal Cup is still the highlight of our year and the centerpiece of our $10 million restricted stakes program."

With Cal Cup in the books, Burge and his board of directors can go back to work on the rest of the challenges facing California breeders and farm owners, including workers' comp insurance premiums, which are still high for farm employees when compared to racetrack backstretch help.

Burge and the CTBA also are placing a high priority on a final solution to their annual yearling sale. A shift in venue to the Del Mar paddock last August obviously was not the answer, but out of that disappointment might finally come a move to consolidate the efforts of competing sales companies and hold the CTBA auction in association with Barretts at its established Pomona facility.

"It's also apparent that no auction should be held before the Keeneland sales in September," Burge added. "Ideally, once Keeneland is over, our buyers could come back here and fill the Cal-bred slots in their stables."

After that, they can start thinking about a Cal Cup.