Californians have always been chauvinistic about their horse racing. They cheer for their thoroughbred heroes; they idolize their top jockeys; they used to proclaim ardently that their racing was superior to the East's.

And nowhere was this positive spirit more evident than at Del Mar. With its perfect climate, its proximity to the ocean, its relaxed, beach-resort ambience and its glamorous clientele, this racetrack was a horseplayer's heaven. Why, Californians wondered, would anybody go to Saratoga during August when perfection existed in Del Mar?

I hadn't played the horses in California for a few years, so I was shocked by the change I encountered on this visit. Yes, the weather and the ambience in Del Mar are still unmatched, but almost every serious bettor displays disappointment, frustration, even despair about the state of the sport in California.

While California is still the home base of top stables and jockeys, and its stakes horses are as good as those anywhere else, the day-to-day racing cards are often a dismal diet of small fields and bad maiden races. A recent, all-too-typical weekday program at Del Mar started like this:

First race: A six-horse field of claimers was won by the 3-to-5 favorite.

Second race: The favorite was a bottom-level claiming horse.

Third race: In a five-horse allowance field, a 1-to-2 shot dominated his rivals by eight lengths.

Fourth race: Only one horse in the maiden-claiming race had ever finished in the money; he won at odds of 4 to 5.

Horseplayers are bored and frustrated by the abundance of such races offering no betting interest. Jeff Siegel, co-manager of the TeamValor racing stable and one of the top handicappers in the West, has spent the past 25 summers in Del Mar; the meeting used to be the main focus of his gambling year. This summer he stayed home.

"Last year was the worst I've ever seen," Siegel said, "and I didn't want to spend seven weeks trying to figure out whether the 6-to-5 shot or the 8-to-5 shot was going to win a maiden race. When you look at the full fields at Saratoga and at Churchill Downs, why would any serious horseplayer stick with the junk here?"

James Quinn, the prolific author of handicapping books who has played the California tracks all his life, said: "I never thought California racing would come to this. The deadly combination of small fields and bad races is killing the regular player. It's hurt me badly. I'm trying to change my game to more over a national perspective and play three or four different tracks."

Even members of track management share these concerns.

"I can't disagree with [the complaints]," said Tom Robbins, Del Mar's director of racing. "It's pretty discouraging."

What has caused the precipitous drop in quality and quantity here? There are several inter-related factors.

Since the mid-1980s, the number of horses foaled in the United States has dropped by some 30 percent, and most tracks have suffered from a shortage of competitors. Even though purses in California are very high--maidens run for $46,000 here--the money is still not sufficient to entice more people to buy horses; training and veterinary costs are so high that the economics of thoroughbred ownership is still lousy. And because California is relatively isolated, horses don't ship from other states to shoot for the big purses as they might do in the East.

The very nature of competition in California contributes further to the shortage of available runners. Because of the speed-favoring nature of the tracks, horses are drilled hard to sharpen their speed, and the races are often grueling. The horses need more time to recuperate from races than their counterparts in the East, and they seemingly don't last as long, either.

Although there are many explanations for the decline in quality, almost everybody agrees there is only one possible short-term solution: less racing. Yet racetracks don't want to pare down their schedules, and the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) recently authorized an increase in racing dates for the year 2000.

Ed Friendly, founder of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, complained that racetracks are not sufficiently concerned about the quality of their product.

"The tracks want to stay open every day; they're in the business of selling programs and hot dogs and beer," Friendly said. "So the CHRB sees fit to give the tracks wall-to-wall 52-week racing, and that's just too much for the limited horse inventory we have here."

California didn't legalize full-card simulcasting until this year. (For the first time, Del Mar offers betting from Saratoga, Monmouth and northern California in addition to its live races.) Yet none of the track managements seem to realize that simulcasting relieves the need to run so many live races. Most other track operators, such as Maryland's Joe De Francis, think the smartest economic move they can make is to reduce the number of racing dates and offer more days of simulcasting, with its lower overhead.

If the California tracks don't do this, or don't find some way to improve their day-to-day product, they are going to face the harsh realities of the simulcasting era. Customers don't remain loyal to the live sport at their home tracks if they prefer the racing elsewhere. (Marylanders, for example, now bet two-thirds of their money on out-of-state signals.)

Even at a track as wonderful as Del Mar, too many small fields and bad races will undermine the once unshakable loyalty of California's racing fans.