01/23/2015 12:19PM

Horse of the Year is California's ambassador

Emily Shields
Horse of the Year California Chrome, who captured the nation's attention with his Triple Crown bid, is giving California breeding a much-needed boost in recognition.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The horse with the ideal name has become the perfect ambassador for California Thoroughbred breeding.

When the immensely popular California Chrome was named 2014 Horse of the Year on Jan. 17, he gave California breeding a much-needed boost in recognition after several years of declining foal crops in one of the nation’s most important racing regions.

As California Chrome nears his first scheduled start of 2015, in the $500,000 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 7, racetrack executives and leading breeders in the state are hoping that public awareness of the colt will lead to greater interest in horse racing in general and a higher investment in owning and breeding Thoroughbreds.

“You know where he’s from when you see his name,” said Doug Burge, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. “We’ve been trying to capitalize on his success all year. The Horse of the Year title has been an exclamation point.”

Burge has worked for the CTBA since the mid-1990s. In recent years, he has witnessed a decline in foal crops that coincided with the recession. In 2002, California’s foal crop was 3,823, a figure that fell to 1,998 in 2010 and 1,582 in 2013, according to statistics compiled by The Jockey Club. The number of foals rose in 2014 to 1,629.

According to Jockey Club statistics, the number of mares bred in California rose from 2,332 in 2013 to 2,472 in 2014. Burge thinks that further growth is possible in the 2015 breeding season, thanks in part to California Chrome.

“From 2006 to the last couple of years, we were trying to stabilize and keep things going,” he said. “Now, we’re showing some growth. We have a lot more optimism. This horse has greatly assisted.

“People that were out of the breeding industry, or on the fence, they see what happened to him and they believe they can do it themselves. It’s got people more willing to invest in breeding.”

Burge said that investment has included California-based owners and breeders acquiring in-foal mares at recent sales outside of the state and making plans to bring the mares to California to foal and to be bred back to stallions in the state in coming months. The new mares add much-needed livestock to the state’s broodmare population.

There is a hope that new breeding farms can be developed. In the last decade, prominent breeding farms such as River Edge Farm in Buellton, and Pepper Oaks Farm in Santa Ynez, have closed. Replacing them is not easy with suitable land at a premium.

“We saw a big consolidation in the number of farms in the last several years,” Burge said. “Those that have remained are doing well. The training tracks are full. At the same time, I’ve had several conversations and meetings with potential new farm owners that are looking at various places now. I’m hopeful they’ll commit to something by the middle of this year, and they can be part of the breeding industry next year.”

California Chrome, who races for breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, has won 9 of 16 starts and earned $4,222,650. Before reaching national prominence last spring with wins in the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness Stakes, California Chrome ran in four races in the second half of 2013 and early 2014 that are part of the Golden State series of stakes administered by the CTBA and racetracks.

Launched for the 2012 racing season, the 37-race series, worth more than $5.5 million in 2015, incorporated existing stakes with new events to provide yearlong opportunities for statebreds throughout the state. The 2015 series begins on Saturday with five stakes on the California Cup program at Santa Anita. Last year, California Chrome won the California Cup Derby.

“From there, to go and do what he did, it really validates the whole Cal-bred program,” Burge said. “It’s very gratifying.”

California Chrome is by Lucky Pulpit, who stands at Harris Farms, and was the state’s leading stallion by progeny earnings in 2014. Lucky Pulpit stood for $2,500 in 2014, a fee hiked to $10,000 for 2015. Farm officials hope to attract a book of 100 mares this year.

California Chrome was raised at Harris Farms and was back on the property for several weeks last summer for a freshening following the Triple Crown. Farm owner John Harris said raising California Chrome at Harris Farms “is an honor.”

“To have him raised on the farm, it verifies we must know what we’re doing,” Harris said, laughing. “He’s been such a Cinderella horse.

“It’s a team effort. Everything has to come together.”

Harris said the popularity of California Chrome will resonate with racing fans, but has benefits much deeper in the game with breeders.

“I think it gives us more respect on the national and international scene,” he said. “California has always been a good place to raise horses.”

Over the next few months, that could lead to more activity from mare owners, though Harris thinks the gains will be limited.

“I’m not that optimistic that we’ll see dramatic growth, but I think it will stabilize,” he said.

Owner and breeder Madeline Auerbach is a member of the California Horse Racing Board and a former member of the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. Auerbach is the owner of Unusual Heat, the state’s leading stallion by progeny earnings from 2008-13 and an active stallion this year.

From her perspective, the presence of California Chrome offers California racing a rare opportunity to educate the general public about the nuances of the game, especially sports fans who may not be familiar with racing. It is an opportunity that cannot be wasted, she said.

“I’d love to see the tracks do a lot more promotion,” Auerbach said. “Maybe I’m not following enough social media, watching enough television, reading enough. What it boils all down to we’re just still not very welcoming.

“In my opinion, it’s very intimidating for people go to the racetrack. I wish we’d reach out to people and let them come and learn about our game.”

The track challenged with that assignment at this time of year is Santa Anita. The presence of California Chrome in the San Antonio is a race promoter’s dream, and could be the only opportunity to see the 4-year-old in the state in coming months.

Trainer Art Sherman said last weekend that there is a possibility that California Chrome will start in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in the Middle East on March 28. If that occurs, California Chrome will need time to recover from that trip in the spring and may not race again until the summertime, at Santa Anita or Del Mar.

Nate Newby, Santa Anita’s director of marketing, estimates California Chrome could draw an additional 5,000 customers to the track. He said the typical crowd for a Saturday at Santa Anita is 7,000 to 8,000 people.

“If he could draw 5,000, that gets us to 13,000. Do I think he could add 12,000 to 13,000? That’s a lot to ask.”

There is always the chance the figure could soar with additional media coverage approaching the race. Much like Zenyatta five years ago, California Chrome is a horse becoming a household name.

Last weekend, Newby said Santa Anita officials were finalizing its promotional campaign that will largely focus on advertising through print, radio, and digital media.

“We’re planning on it being a big day, and we’re spending money,” he said. “We’re excited to have a big February event.”

For promoters of California racing and breeding, the attention cannot come at a better time.