Golden State's Best? May be the Mabees

Published in the June 30 Blood-Horse
Prying ourselves away from our computer screens and Internet hook-ups here in 2001, we can only try to imagine what life was like in Seymour, Iowa, in 1921. World War I, the war to end all wars, was recent history. The Great Depression loomed around the corner. And into the middle of Middle America John Mabee entered the world, 80 years ago come August. His family's farm didn't have so much as a tractor, and that fact shaped the life of Mabee and California racing more than anyone could know.

The lack of mechanization meant the presence of horses everywhere -- as workers in the field, and transportation to school or friends' houses or wherever else kids in Seymour needed to go in the Roaring '20s.

At school, Mabee was situated alphabetically next to Betty Murphy. "When the teacher turned her back, he threw my books on the floor," said Betty. "I guess that was his way of saying he was interested, but it sure was subtle." The approach worked. "We've been married forever," Betty Mabee laughed while seated in the office of Golden Eagle Farm outside Ramona, Calif., an hour north and east of Del Mar.

Golden Eagle is synonymous with racing and breeding success in the Golden State...and beyond. The Mabees have earned numerous national and state breeding honors, and their homebreds have dominated California racing and made their mark nationwide (see box). John Mabee likes to do things his own way, and if someone doesn't like it, he'll move on to the next fellow. You can argue with his methods, but not his success.

"We have a mutual respect, and if he's confident with what you're doing he's fine," said Bob Baffert, who has trained top horses like Worldly Manner, General Challenge, and Excellent Meeting for the Mabees. "He knows I'm on the up and up with him, and that's all he asks. He's very aggressive and wants you to train on the horses and not mess around. If they can run they run, and if they can't, it's 'next.' "

There is no confusing Golden Eagle Farm with the perfectly manicured showcase horse nurseries of Central Kentucky. As one would expect of a man whose formative years coincided with the Depression, there are no frills, cupolas, or fancy paint jobs on the barns; besides the marker at the entrance on Highway 78 East, the signs are hand-lettered; chain-link fences enclose the paddocks.

Raising horses isn't a beauty contest. And the Mabees didn't carry trust funds or inheritances with them from Iowa to California. Their livelihood is self-made, forged from long work and mostly wise decisions that began back in Iowa when John, chronically ill with bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis, began riding his horse to the local library to research other areas of the country that might better suit his health. He settled on San Diego.

Betty soon joined him, and they bought a small grocery store and saved a couple of dollars. They'd gone to Del Mar to see the races and decided to buy a horse before they knew the first thing about racehorses. "I had the fastest pony back home, but I'm not so sure how relevant that was to Thoroughbreds," said John. "Being young and dumb you do things you wouldn't do under normal circumstances," Betty added.

They hit the 1957 summer yearling auction at the Del Mar fairgrounds with $15,000 burning a hole in their pockets.

"The first one I wanted went too high, and the second one went higher than that," said John. "We were getting frantic, so we ended up buying two cheap ones, for $2,700 and $3,100." The first horse won as a 2-year-old, the other won at three, and the couple was hooked.

Meantime, Mabee was building the little grocery store into a chain of supermarkets called Big Bear, which he would end up selling in 1991 for many more zeroes than he brought to that Del Mar sale. He turned his attention to breeding Thoroughbreds, looking for mares with the right blood. "When I started you didn't worry about the ankles and knees. You wanted the blood." Today the Golden Eagle broodmare band, kept predominantly in California with a contingent in Kentucky, numbers some 250. The Mabees have no qualms about selling the cream of their crops.

John Mabee is nothing if not a businessman who knows how to make money. He gets his up front and races what remains.

"I've always sold 'X' amount of horses," John noted. "We have to keep them moving -- mares, yearlings, occasionally 2-year-olds and weanlings. It gets to the point where you have too many rabbits."

Mabee sold the top race filly Excellent Meeting privately for a "big price" after she came off the track with bone chips. Why, he was asked, wouldn't he keep such a classy runner to breed?

"I can get another one tomorrow. In fact, I've got more of them coming. I may sell Best Pal's little brother as a weanling this fall. He's a beauty and it would be good to have something like that in the (Keeneland) sale. Sentimentality? It enters into it, but not too much."

When the Mabees, who have one son, Larry, and three grandchildren, started out, they never imagined becoming leaders in a field that was mostly a hobby. "I was about 5% into horses and 95% into other things," John said. "We started accumulating a few mares and had no place to keep them," Betty explained. "So we started looking for land, and the next thing you know you're into it a little more. There's a big plus side in this business, more enjoyment."

There is also trial and error. Mabee began buying into stallions in Kentucky in the mid-'70s, and says now he spread himself too thin trying to get a piece of every hot commodity.

"A lot of the stallions just didn't work with my mares. We ended up with a lot of Secretariat mares who were good, but the colts from him weren't. I got in too late to get to Northern Dancer. I went to Mr. Prospector early and that didn't work out. I can't make money going to Seattle Slew anymore -- I'm going to have four of his yearlings at Keeneland, and they won't sell for his stud fee. Same with Storm Cat -- you get one out of 10 that brings big money. Spendthrift wanted me to buy into Wajima and I said, 'No, I've had enough.'

"I'm a numbers guy, and after breeding to these high-priced horses I realized I was pretty stupid to buy into all of them. My biggest disappointment was J. O. Tobin. I just knew he was going to be a great stallion. I sent five good mares to him and got nothing. You learn. It's percentages. Plenty of smart people come and go in this business. My good friend Allen Paulson -- at the beginning -- he was all over the place. We put him with one of the best horsemen out here -- Doc (Jack) Robbins, and he wouldn't listen. I was guilty of that too. I didn't listen to any of them, and at times I should have."