Thoroughbred horses and the inevitable contests pitched among them first reached the shores of the Pacific during the Gold Rush years. Though “the sport of Kings” gained a quick and enthusiastic foothold in the wild West, within a few decades it had fallen into “the hands of Knaves.” Soon after the turn of the century, thoroughbred horseracing in California was, it seemed, finished. Ruined by corruption, it was literally (and voluntarily) abolished by horsemen.
While racing flourished in the Eastern United States, it languished in the West, particularly California, for three decades. Thoroughbred stallions and mares disappeared from California, and thus a part of the state’s farming industry was wiped out. During the same years that the economic depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s was taking a toll on all forms of agriculture, a resolute group of principled horsemen determined to bring thoroughbred racing back from its own “famine” years. In 1933, they finally convinced the California legislature to pass a Constitutional Amendment (colloquially known as “The Horse Law”), which instituted guidelines and statutes designed to provide for a healthy, thriving, and clean thoroughbred racing industry.
A carefully-regulated pari-mutuel wagering system was established and a governing body (The California Horse Racing Board) was appointed to supervise the conduct of racing and its participants. Agriculture became the central force in restoring quality racing to California: farming’s importance to the state’s economic status was the legislative lever needed to jump-start the sport. The first tracks to be opened in racing’s new era were all located within existing County Fairs – the showcases for agricultural products.
During California’s 30-year thoroughbred “drought,” Kentucky, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Florida became the leaders in the breeding of racing stock. The great stallions and the mares of eye-catching pedigree were, in the main, beyond the reach of California’s newly born county fair racing program. The prime stock was hoarded, protected by law, rewarded by sharing in racing’s income – and it became the foundation on which racing, in every state was preserved and enriched.
The progress of California racing through the late 1930s, which included the opening of new, non-Fair aligned racetracks, found its races filled with “important horses.” Most were lured west by the increases in racing fans and the chance to make “easy money” competing against California’s newly minted home-breds. The prizes for breeding successful thoroughbreds were and still are (but to a lesser extent) found in the East. California has only recently begun a serious, competitive push to match the traditional stakes programs that produce Triple Crown champions.
Early on, it was recognized that California would need financial help to spur breeders of thoroughbreds to move their established stars to the West. A commitment was made to develop, from California stock, top-quality racehorses capable of competing with the best in the world.
The commitment materialized in the form of the financially beneficial system known as The California Breeders and Owners Award Incentives Program. This is a fund, drawn from the total of wagers made in California and divided among the participants in California breeding, that has grown to $10 million dollars a year. Since 1981, this fund has been administered and distributed by the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association.
An average of one race per day – at every active track in California – must be written exclusively for California-bred horses.
“Cal-bred” incentive awards generally provide extra earning power for breeders and owners in a number of forms. New owners and those not involved in racehorse breeding will find the terms of the awards program as dauntingly worded and prescribed as they are promising: indeed, it takes a dedicated owner with good concentration to extract full advantage from them. For the purposes of this handbook, we will focus only on the opportunities available for buyers and current owners of California-Bred racehorses. (For information on California Stallion awards and California Breeders’ awards, please contact the C.T.B.A.).
“Cal-bred” horses (which are identified in the official program by a small running horse over a State-of-California-shaped symbol printed to the right of a horse’s name) are defined as follows: 1) A thoroughbred horse dropped (foaled) in California after having been conceived in California, or 2) any thoroughbred foal dropped by a mare in California if the mare remains in California to be next bred to a thoroughbred stallion standing in the state.
That stated, there are two special advantages that come with ownership of a Cal-bred racehorse. One is that, again by state mandate, an average of one race per day – at every active track in California – must be written exclusively for California-bred horses.
The second major benefit to “Cal-bred” ownership is the divvying up, once a year, of 15% of the state’s multi-million dollar award fund. (All the year’s races must be run before the awards breakdown can be determined – therefore, each owner’s earned share is calculated, prorated, and paid out by the C.T.B.A. sometime before March 31st of the following year).
There are several qualification to be met in order for an owner to participate in the Cal-bred incentive awards. First, your horse’s registration must be current and up-to-date at the time of the race (if you are buying a Cal-bred, make certain you contact the C.T.B.A. to verify that the horse’s registration is in good standing before you write the check). Second, awards, for owners, are paid on WINS only. Third, the maximum winning purse that can be considered “earned” in any race within the state is $330,000, and the owners awards are paid exclusively of any and all nominating, entry and starting fees.
Finally, though all non-claiming races (including maiden allowance races and starter allowance races) qualify for awards, awards for claiming races are paid on “high-level” races only: this is purposeful, as the goal of the incentive program is to encourage the breeding of high-quality runners. A cautionary note on claiming races: as with purses, it is the owner who entered the horse, not the owner who claimed the horse, who earns the award.
The “30-year gap” in California breeding that began 90 years ago has not yet been closed. Kentucky and Florida especially have consistently raised the antes in the contest to produce the nation’s most desirable racing stock. We are lagging behind to this day. Though the California-bred incentives system is working, it is not doing so at the rate such a positive and well-conceived plan deserves; whatever thoughtful effort California’s thoroughbred racehorse owners can make toward improving the quality of California-bred horses will only ensure a healthier – and wealthier – future for everyone who truly wishes “Good racing!” to California.