01/09/2014 3:53PM

Jay Hovdey: Longevity helps counter modern horse shortage

Tom Keyser
Majestic Harbor will try to upset the San Pasqual in his first West Coast appearance since a forgettable Fairplex Park appearance in 2012.

It’s snowing and very cold, everywhere it seems, so how can there be any such thing as global warming?

The unassailable logic of that idea struck home when liberally applied to the most important Thoroughbred action taking place on both coasts Saturday, when 25 older male runners have been entered to run in one of three graded middle-distance stakes. With such a relative bounty of tough campaigners willing and able to run, how can anyone be concerned about a horse shortage?

At Santa Anita, the Jerry Hollendorfer stable pair of Rousing Sermon and Blueskiesnrainbows lead a field of seven that features Drill, Blingo, and Majestic City in the Grade 2, $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the main track.

At Gulfstream Park, Summer Front, Slumber, and Howe Great are among 10 entered for the $200,000 Fort Lauderdale Stakes, a Grade 2 event at 1 1/16 miles on the grass, although two of them – Suns Out Guns Out and Csaba – are listed as MTO (as opposed to RFD, BLT, or LOL), which means they would run only if the race is rained off the turf.

If it is, just a half-hour later a junior version of the Fort Lauderdale will be offered. Ten are entered in the Grade 3, $100,000 Hal’s Hope Stakes at a mile on the main track, including Csaba and Nikki’s Sandcastle from the Fort Lauderdale field, as trainers Phil Gleaves and Dave Kassen leave all options open.

Of course, they can’t run in both, although don’t put it past a racing secretary to wonder, “Why not?” Field size has become the modern-day obsession, given its direct relationship to parimutuel vigor. Track managements have basically been working the miracle of loaves and fishes, making as much as they can out of less and less. Still, there are only so many ways management can repackage a seven-horse field through multiple wagers before the thread wears hopelessly thin.

The reality is in the numbers. The estimated North American Thoroughbred foal crop for 2013 is 23,000, representing another tick downward in a steady, eight-year decline. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But as long as there are 14-horse starting gates and expectations of certain purse levels, demand will continue at a rate unrelated to the available inventory.

Not since the late 1960s has the registered foal population been in the 23,000 range. Interestingly, the number of races run in 1968 (49,777) is comparable to the total reported run by The Jockey Club in 2012 (51,201), while the average field size in the late 1960s was around 8.5 compared to approximately 7.9 in 2012. Horses then made an average of about 10 starts a year. Today it’s down around six.

Longevity helps pick up the obvious slack, which is why the guys gathered for the Fort Lauderdale, the Hal’s Hope, and the San Pasqual are so important to the game. Most of them are 5, two are 4, five are 6, three are 7, and 12 of them will be making at least their 20th start.

Among the 6-year-olds is Majestic Harbor, owned by the Gallant Stables partnership and now back under the care of Sean McCarthy in California. A son of Rockport Harbor, Majestic Harbor will try to upset the San Pasqual in his first West Coast appearance since a forgettable Fairplex Park appearance in 2012. Paul McGee does the honors when the horse is based in Kentucky.

“He came back to us right after the Breeders’ Cup last fall,” McCarthy said. “He’d had a bit of a layup back there, and since he’s been here he’s trained forwardly. He’s still the same playful, good-feeling horse we knew then.”

A Grade 2 race for older horses is never cheaply won, and at one point in history it required Hall of Famers and champions like Native Diver, Nodouble, Ack Ack, Ancient Title, Precisionist, Criminal Type, and Silver Charm to win the San Pasqual. A glance through the winners from the past decade, however, reveals that the San Pasqual is pretty much the best race any of them ever won.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. McCarthy knows Majestic Harbor will be a deserving longshot in the race, but the time to strike seems to be now.

“His Jan. 5 work was very, very good,” McCarthy said. “It gave us the green light to go ahead and take on the kind of horses he’ll meet in the San Pasqual.”

McCarthy has engaged Tyler Baze to ride Saturday, as Baze tries to break through with a stakes win after returning from his lengthy suspension Jan. 1.

“I told Tyler the horse doesn’t need to be hustled, just in the race early,” McCarthy said. “And if he’s feeling good about it, he’ll do it himself.

“I don’t want to give away too much of my strategy, though,” McCarthy added, tongue firmly in cheek. “The horse is fresh, the jock is fresh – and the trainer will feel very fresh if he can upset the applecart in a race like this.”