10/10/2012 4:42PM

Hovdey: Cal Cup now fed by its young


Here’s how the free market has worked in California for breeders of Thoroughbred racehorses.

Two decades ago, in 1993, there were 3,860 foals registered with The Jockey Club as California-breds. This figure was second only to Kentucky’s 7,008 foals and represented 11.4 percent of the total U.S. foal crop of 33,820.

In 2010, the most recent year for which reasonably complete Jockey Club figures are available, the California foal crop was 1,935, representing 7.7 percent of a 25,212 U.S. population.

To put it in terms my dachshund can understand, while the total U.S. foal crop was declining by 25.4 percent, the California total was falling twice as fast, by 49.8 percent.

Of the major breeding states, only Texas – going from a crop of 2,386 in 1993 to 831 in 2010 – sustained such a precipitous drop. Then in 2011, the California total dipped further, to 1,762 according to the California Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association, and the estimate for 2012 is 1,600. Roller coasters are supposed to go up as well as down, but this ride has been more like being thrown out of a plane.

Those living the nightmare don’t need the numbers to know what’s going on. Farms have been gutted and closed, labor cut loose, land developed or sold, racing dates shaved, and with it all the downstream effects of displacement, hardship, and disappointment. To be a breeder today in the Golden State is to play a game with very few happy endings.

Oh, and welcome to the 2012 California Cup.

The Cal Cup will be run for the 23rd time Saturday at Santa Anita, and it will be a good day. However, any resemblance to the inaugural celebration in 1990 – when My Sonny Boy won the $300,000 Cal Cup Classic for owner Carlton Sell, trainer Bill Spawr, and jockey Jorge Velasquez, who replaced the no-show Pat Valenzuela – will be purely coincidental.

The Cal Cup has been reduced to just five events, while pretty much turning the day over to a pair of 2-year-old races, each with a $250,000 pot for 1 1/16 miles worth of work. This is considerably more than the $100,000 Cal Cup Sprint, the $125,000 Cal Cup Distaff, or the $175,000 Cal Cup Classic.

The boost for 2-year-olds is part of California’s Golden State Series unfolding in 2012, a naked attempt to jump-start the engine of breeding and ownership out West. Is it okay to call it a stimulus package? You decide.

Targeting 3-year-olds and 2-year-olds who fit the definition of Cal-bred (and are nominated to the program), the landscape has been altered by six new events worth a total of $1 million. Ten existing events had purses boosted – tripled in the case of the California Breeders’ Champion Stakes at season’s end, from $100,000 to $300,000, a purse competitive with all but a handful of established Grade 1 stakes out West. In all, the Golden State Series – fostered by the CTBA, the California Marketing Committee, and the Thoroughbred Owners of California – is putting a $2.325 million on the table in 20 events.

A few remaining idealists will wring their hands over the evils of subsidies and market manipulation in favor of restricted contests. Certainly, in a well-oiled Thoroughbred world purse levels would be high enough to encourage vigorous investment in both racing stables and breeding operations. But the lubricant of a healthy general economy has dried up, and key California industry leaders decided that the game would not die on their watch without at least giving intervention a try.

The goal of the Cal Cup used to be to reward the breeders and owners of top-class California-breds with a day of purses, praise, and tasty buffets. With California’s history of horses like Swaps, Tiznow, Ancient Title, Snow Chief, Fran’s Valentine, Honeymoon, Candy Spots, Flying Paster, and Crystal Water, the bar for Cal-bred excellence is set pretty high.

No one really takes Cal Cup contestants seriously unless they came to the party with reputations already established in open company, or went on from the Cal Cup to greater things. Cal Cup winners like Best Pal, Cat’s Cradle, Sky Jack, Belle’s Flag, Dream of Summer, Dancing in Silks, Budroyale, Big Jag, Romance Is Diane, House of Fortune, The Usual Q. T., and Megan’s Interco were among those meeting the highest standards, as well as Lava Man, who will be honored by the naming of this year’s Classic.

Dumping the bulk of the Cal Cup money on 2-year-olds, though, is a gamble that probably will need several years to pay off. They have been the weakest Cal Cup bunch by far. Of the 22 winners of the Cal Cup Juvenile, exactly three of them did anything outside the state worth mentioning.

Texcess, winner in 2004, won the ungraded $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot in Louisiana later that year, while Sierra Sunset, winner in 2007, won the 2008 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Still, even they must kneel before Cavonnier, who won the 1995 Cal Cup Juvenile for his breeders, Bob and Barbara Walter. The following spring, after winning the Santa Anita Derby, Cavonnier took Bob Baffert to his first Kentucky Derby, only to lose to Grindstone by the narrowest margin in the history of America’s most famous race.

Cavonnier is still celebrated as the best horse ever bred in California’s wine country, where he still lives at Vine Hill Ranch near Sebastopol.

“He’s doing great, still out in a field there at Vine Hill,” said Cathy Vicini, Robert Walter’s daughter. “He’s got one of the mares with him, and the two of them just have a ball. I’ll go out there with my lab and they’ll come running up to the fence to visit, then gallop up and down the hill.”

Robert Walter died in 2003, while Barbara Walter passed away in 2010. Their hilltop house and ranch have been on the market and their bloodstock all but dispersed, although farm trainer George Pirie is still there to care for Cavonnier and the handful of Walter horses still remaining. Next year, Cavonnier turns 20.

“I think it’s very peaceful out there for him,” Vicini said. “But Cav still thinks he’s all that and then some.”

He was and still stands tall as the closest a California-bred has come to winning the Kentucky Derby since Swaps turned the trick 57 years ago. If the fresh injection of cash for Cal-bred 2-year-olds can help resuscitate the business, that’s great. If it happens, let’s hope horses more like Cavonnier can be a by-product of that recovery.