From California Chrome to American Pharoah and now Nyquist, invaders from the Golden State have been on a roll in the Triple Crown.
Unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist will try to stretch his streak to nine in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. His top competition in the second jewel of the Triple Crown will come from Derby runner-up Exaggerator, another California-based colt.
Did something change to suddenly give California-raised horses a racing edge? It’s likely a combination of temperate weather, top-flight trainers, deep-pocketed investors, stiff competition – and a whole lot of luck. Coupled with some talented horses, those factors have helped create a recent trend that peaks during Triple Crown season.
“We talk about it all the time,” said Billy Koch, president of the Woodland Hills-based Little Red Feather Racing, a top racehorse syndicate. “That’s not an uncommon conversation at California racetracks.”
“It’s not because those boys back East like us,” added longtime owner Mike Pegram, whose Real Quiet won the 1998 Derby and Preakness. “They still think we’re a bunch of hillbillies. They treat Nyquist the same way they treated Seabiscuit.”
A blue-collar hero during the Great Depression, Seabiscuit beat the East Coast’s best more than 75 years ago. Since then, other California-based horses have had their share of success in racing’s classics and year-end championships.
California-based runners have brought home four out of the last five Kentucky Derby trophies. And their success isn’t limited to the Triple Crown.
Earlier this spring, California Chrome – the first California-bred thoroughbred to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness – triumphed in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race. That victory swelled his bankroll to more than $12.5 million, a record for any North American horse.
It’s not just colts enjoying success; defending filly and mare champions Beholder, Stellar Wind and Songbird also call California home.
“I’m sure some (of this success) is random statistical quirks,” said Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Privman, part of NBC’s Triple Crown crew of experts. “(There’s a) good trend now after many fallow years.”
From 2000 to 2012, only one California-based horse – 50-1 long shot Giacomo in 2005 – won the Kentucky Derby.
Whatever the edge now, it’s working. Nyquist trainer Doug O’Neill, owner J. Paul Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez also won the 2012 Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another.
Owners with a willingness and pocketbook to buy expensive horses are one key to recent California success. With the economy on the rebound – and the influx of dot-com millionaires – many Californians have newfound play money. For folks with extra cash, a racehorse is like owning a sports team.
“I like owners that have a passion for the sport,” said California-based trainer Bob Baffert, who has won 12 Triple Crown races. “It’s fun if you’re with the right people. Horses are beautiful creatures that soothe the soul. They never ask for a raise or complain; just more carrots.”
California Chrome, the product of an $8,000 mare and $2,500 stallion, proved a great horse can come from a relatively small investment.
“(Potential owners range) from wealthy people to stable hands, from middle age to older,” said Nick Coukos, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. “We have currently about 7,000 owners, and that number has held constant over the last five years. We have had a big increase in partnerships and syndicates, which has kept the number steady.”
Nyquist owner Reddam, a former college philosophy professor turned dot-com millionaire, has invested some of his fortune in horses. At age 44, he sold online mortgage giant Ditech.com. He then launched CashCall.com, another major online lender.
Deron Pearson is another high-tech convert to horse racing. Pearson, whose horses compete under the stable name D.P. Racing, sold information technology services company Nexus in 2014 and invested in thoroughbreds. He’s had as many as 80 horses in training including 2015 Derby starter Ocho Ocho Ocho.
Syndicates, which offer shares in a particular horse, have broadened opportunities for potential owners and now account for about half of all racehorse ownership in California.
“We have more than 30 horses and more than 300 investors,” said Little Red Feather’s Koch. “There’s no typical investor; we have plumbers, dentists, lawyers, retirees.
“We sell the experience, not an investment,” he added. “People are looking for excitement; they’re like-minded thrill seekers.”
Training in California – particularly during the winter and spring – gives horses an advantage, said Yuba City’s Perry Martin, California Chrome’s majority owner and breeder. That’s crucial when aiming a 3-year-old colt for the Triple Crown, run over five weeks in May and June. Fewer rainy or snowy days – common in Kentucky or New York – means more track time. It also produces a firmer, faster track.
“I think our big edge here in California is just the weather,” said O’Neill, Nyquist’s trainer. “It’s so beautiful every day. ... Everyone trains every day, and I really think for the most part that California horses are just a tad more fit than some other horses.”
Those advantages end up attracting top talent, both two- and four-legged.
“We have the best trainers in the world,” said Coukos of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. That list includes O’Neill, Richard Mandella, Jerry Hollendorfer, Art Sherman, John Sadler and many more.
Koch points to the success of one trainer in particular: Baffert.
“I call it the Baffertization of California,” he said. “Bob always has really good horses and he can train these horses to be exceptionally fit.”
Owners with expensive horses – such as New Jersey’s Ahmed Zayat, owner of American Pharoah – seek out Baffert, Koch said. Opposing trainers have to improve their stock to stay competitive and train their horses just as aggressively.
“There’s a different training style in California vs. New York,” Koch added, noting an emphasis on early speed. “That style helps us in bigger races.”
From his home base at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Baffert swept the 2015 Triple Crown with American Pharoah, the first horse to claim racing’s most coveted prize in 37 years. The 2015 Horse of the Year, American Pharoah capped his season with a victory in the nation’s richest race, the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
Now retired to a Kentucky bluegrass stallion farm, American Pharoah won stakes last year in Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, New York and New Jersey – all while training in California.
Inducted into horse racing’s Hall of Fame in 2009, Baffert has trained in Southern California since the 1980s.
“We have the best weather you can imagine and don’t have to move around,” said Baffert, who will saddle Collected in Saturday’s Preakness. “Young horses do better on a faster surface than the deep loose tracks back East.”
That statewide competition strengthens young horses for the grueling Triple Crown: three major stakes at three different distances in three states. Horses must be mentally as well as physically prepared for that challenge.
“No question, this is the best place to train, year-round for so many reasons,” said Mike Willman, Santa Anita’s longtime director of publicity. “Believe me, it’s no fluke that four out of the last five Derby winners have either trained or campaigned here at Santa Anita.”
Among the world’s finest racetracks, Santa Anita boasts plenty of amenities for horses, including top-class racing surfaces and a fully equipped on-site equine hospital. In November, it will host the Breeder’s Cup world championships for the ninth time. Located in the San Gabriel Valley, the historic 320-acre facility is home to about 1,900 thoroughbreds – and only 30 miles from Los Angeles International Airport.
“My barn is geared to get on a plane and knock off stakes all over the country,” said Baffert, who has won four Kentucky Derbies, six Preakness Stakes and two Belmont Stakes. “No one has a better ship-and-win record than us.”
The success of California Chrome and American Pharoah has reignited interest in California’s $2.5 billion racing industry and horse ownership overall, several experts said. With a strong incentive program for breeders and owners, California is in a virtual tie with Florida for breeding bragging rights, behind only Kentucky in terms of foal production. This spring, more than 2,000 foals will be born in California, the most in nearly a decade.
“During the recession, we were in a free fall,” said Doug Burge, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. “It was bad all over the country. ... Three or four years ago, our goal was to stop the bleeding. But now, more and more people are interested in getting involved. The demand for Cal-breds now is as good as I’ve ever seen.”
141st Preakness Stakes
Where: Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore
When: Post time 3:45 p.m. Saturday
TV: 2 p.m. Channel 3
Cal Expo: Watch and wager on the Preakness live. Doors open at 7 a.m.