Golden State's Best? May be the Mabees (continued)

Continued from part 1

Even without much advice from others, Mabee has done a remarkable job planning his matings, a practice he continues to this day. Although a stroke in the spring of 2000 has left him unable to enunciate his thoughts as smoothly as he'd like, it hasn't affected his ability to study pedigrees.

"John has got a built-in computer in his head," said Betty, "and even with the stroke he still has the computer. He's never used a calculator or a computer, just his head. And he retains things that are far beyond normal -- going back on all these bloodlines. He plays the odds, he likes to gamble, and it is a gamble, so you'd better know where you're putting your chips. And I think he knows."

There is no question that Mabee has shrewdly upgraded his broodmare band through the years. The statistics are staggering. The Mabees have bred more than 200 stakes winners. Through 1996, 43% of their stakes winners were produced by homebred mares. Mabee is not shy about using his broodmare band to get his stallions off to a running start, nor does he mince words about breeding in California.

"The quality of the mares out here may have improved a little through the years, but it's still not very good. The mares have got to be of quality to get up to the level of Kentucky, but believe me, they have plenty of bad mares in Kentucky, too. The blood for the mares is the key to California. We happen to have enough mares of our own to get our stallions off the ground. We have to do it that way. Even in Kentucky you don't always get the mares you want to a stallion, so you have to do it on your own. Look at Cee's Tizzy out here. At $15,000, and as hot as he is, they're probably not getting a full book. I could ship any one of these stallions off to Kentucky and make more money, but I like to have the farm here going good and introduce decent foals out here."

In an effort to get young stallions Event of the Year and Souvenir Copy going early, the Mabees began investing more heavily in broodmares recently. In 1998 alone, they bought 25 broodmares for more than $3 million. Event of the Year has a book of 95 mares for 2001.

A son of Seattle Slew, Event of the Year destroyed the 1998 Jim Beam Stakes (gr. II) field at Turfway Park and looked every bit a Kentucky Derby contender when he suffered an injury that took him off the Derby trail. The Mabees have started only three horses in the Derby, Best Pal in 1991 and General Challenge and Excellent Meeting in the 1999 stampede. They sold a Derby contender, Worldly Manner, for a reported $5 million in 1999. Their opinion of the race is quite different from many in the business.

"The Derby is considered the plum of racing, but we'd rather have a well 4-year-old than a broken down 3-year-old just to say we ran in the Derby, and that's happened to us more than once," said Betty. "The hype begins as soon as a 2-year-old shows some promise and the trainer, the jockey, the press, and the racetracks all start leaning on you." Added John, "You'll have a horse with a chip on his knee and the trainer won't tell you about it."

"In 1991 we had Avenue of Flags, General Meeting, and Best Pal as Derby hopefuls," Betty said. "And then one by one they started dropping out. Best Pal was the one who ran, but he was so compromised it was sickening. His jockey (Pat Valenzuela) went downhill and couldn't ride, the horse drew a bad post -- it just seemed like he didn't have a fair chance, and he still ran second. I think the Derby comes too early. General Challenge had the talent but didn't have the mind to do it, and then you've got 20 horses banging together into each other on the first turn." John added, "And we never should have run the filly (Excellent Meeting) either. Let's just say I'll never do that again. In fact, I didn't want to do it that time."

Mabee has given much back to his adopted industry. He was instrumental in turning a decaying Del Mar facility into the jewel it is today, having served as both president and chairman of the board. He is a founding member of the board of directors of Breeders' Cup Ltd., and a past director of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, even though he states, "I'm not a good board member. I guess I'm used to action on my own." Mabee also owned a piece of the San Diego Chargers, which he sold to Eugene Klein, a Thoroughbred owner who won the 1988 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) with the filly Winning Colors.

As people who lived through the Depression surely know, every facet of life has its ups and downs. For the past two years, Golden Eagle has endured a relatively dry run at the racetrack. There has been an upheaval in farm personnel that has compromised the farm's performance. A well publicized battle with California's insurance commissioner led to Mabee having to sell his Golden Eagle Insurance Co. And, for decades now, the Mabees have been known for playing musical chairs with their trainers. When it was pointed out that they've fired some good conditioners through the years, Betty quickly pointed out, "And some have fired us."

Sentimentality, as John Mabee said, plays but a minor part in the picture. And that's to be expected from someone who got his way early on by spraying books around a classroom floor.