California Chrome’s Kentucky Derby win a coup for statebred program

By Joe Nevills
At its core, California Chrome’s Kentucky Derby victory is a “local boy makes good” story.

The chestnut colt was foaled and raised at Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif., which is also the home of his sire, Lucky Pulpit. California Chrome never raced outside of his home state until the Kentucky Derby, and even his name furthers his status as a living billboard for the statebred program.

If anything else, California Chrome’s success has helped serve as a morale booster for the state’s breeding industry, which had been on a 51-year drought since Decidedly became the third California-bred to win the Kentucky Derby in 1962. He has also given the program its biggest equine celebrity since Horse of the Year Tiznow’s dominance in the early 2000s.

“It’s just a tremendous boost for the breeding program here in the state,” said Doug Burge, executive vice president and general manager of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. “It really validates the significance of the whole Cal-bred program. He got his experience and foundation through our new Golden State Series of stakes races, the King Glorious on closing day at Hollywood, and we moved the Cal Cup [card] in conjunction with the Sunshine Millions and had the Cal Cup Derby, which he won. Basically, he went right through his Cal-bred conditions and on to graded company, and then to what we saw last Saturday.”

California’s breeding program has gone through recent ebbs and flows consistent with the North American industry as a whole. The number of mares bred annually in the state existed at around 5,800 from 2001 to 2004 but declined over the next several years in the midst of the economic and industry recessions. A total of 2,353 mares were bred in California in 2013 according to statistics from The Jockey Club.

While shrinking at a much less alarming rate in the past few years, the number of mares bred in California has not seen growth since 2002, and the state’s foal crop has represented an increasingly smaller percentage of the overall North American total.

However, Burge said recent developments in the California program, including the addition of the Golden State Series of statebred races in 2012, give reason to look forward to the future.

“People are investing again in California,” he said. “I expect our foal crop numbers to be up this year. I’ve been here almost 20 years, and I just feel like there’s more optimism now than I’ve seen in a long time. There are several young stallions that have come to the state in the past few years that the stallion owners and others are supporting, and to top it off, you’ve got a horse like California Chrome that really puts us on the map.”

John C. Harris, president of Harris Farms, said that breeders who have stuck around in California tend to approach their operations in a process similar to the one that brought California Chrome into the world.

“California isn’t really a market breeder’s state like Kentucky and maybe Florida,” Harris said. “So many people that breed in California race in California. Three of the four Derby winners from California were raced by their breeders. It’s kind of the style in California to try to breed a good horse because you’re going to race it, so it’s a long-term commitment. So many people don’t want to invest for the long term, but for breeding horses, that’s the game.”

While it remains to be seen how California Chrome’s success on this year’s Kentucky Derby trail will influence the number of mares bred in the state, it has already had a drastic effect on the book of his sire, Lucky Pulpit.

The 13-year-old son of Pulpit entered stud in 2007 and covered modest books in his first four years, never eclipsing 37 mares. The year after his first runners hit the track, his book jumped to 101 mares and has remained among the highest in the state. His popularity reached another level this year in the midst of California Chrome’s success during the Derby prep season, and his book reached a capacity of about 125 mares.

Lucky Pulpit was homebred in California by Idaho-based Larry and Marianne Williams, who still own the stallion and support him with mares. The stallion’s first Kentucky Derby starter, Rousing Sermon, was campaigned by the Williams, finishing eighth in the 2012 edition.

The Williams also bred and race California-bred Tamarando, by Bertrando, who established himself as an early contender on this year’s Kentucky Derby trail with wins in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity and Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby.

“We’ve certainly gotten a lot of texts and a lot of calls, and everyone’s certainly on a real high,” said Larry Williams. “Of course, everybody is talking Triple Crown, but I know it’s a tough, tough road to get there. We’re just sitting back and enjoying the Kentucky Derby win on our end and visiting with people.”

Williams watched California Chrome’s Derby victory live at Churchill Downs and said the colt provides a fine example of what a smaller breeder can accomplish. That, he said, could stimulate activity within the California breeding program.

“I think it’s huge,” he said. “The ‘California’ in the name tells you a lot. Everyone that hears the name California Chrome can tell you that he’s from California. We’ve been getting a lot of interest in Lucky Pulpit, and I think everybody in California is pretty excited about their first Derby winner in many years.”

Harris noted that Lucky Pulpit’s success comes at a time when the California stallion market is beginning to transition from many of the stalwarts at the top of the state’s sire list to fresher names.

“Some of the real strong horses out of California like In Excess and Bertrando died, and Benchmark retired,” Harris said. “Tribal Rule, who was one of the leading sires and wasn’t super old, recently died. We’ve got Unusual Heat on the farm. He’s 24 and he’s doing really well, but he’s not going to be around forever. We have Cee’s Tizzy here, but he’s not breeding mares. We’ve got a little bit of a void at the top. A lot of the horses that really established themselves aren’t here, so we’ve got to regroup – and Lucky Pulpit goes right to the head of the class.”