04/24/2003 12:00AM

At 7, this comebacker hardly a kid


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - At various times, General Challenge has been a Kentucky Derby favorite, a candidate for Horse of the Year, and a mainstay in California racing.

On Saturday, he has a chance to become something else - a comeback hero at the age of 7 - when he makes his first start after an absence of 2 1/2 years in the $150,000 Tiznow Stakes on the California Gold Rush program at Hollywood Park.

The setting is a far cry from the national spotlight he graced in 1999, when he won the Santa Anita Derby and the Pacific Classic, and in 2000, when he won the Strub and Santa Anita Handicap.

But his owner, Betty Mabee, and trainer, Bob Baffert, are happy that the gelding has recovered sufficiently from a tendon and a splint bone injury to resume a career that includes nine wins from 18 starts and earnings of $2,876,018. Anything more will be a bonus, his handlers insist.

"We treat him delicately, and we take our time with him," Baffert said. "He's got a lot of fans behind him, and I've got to be careful. He's a neat horse."

General Challenge was having a strong season in 2000 when a tendon injury was diagnosed in his left foreleg. The setback left Mabee and her late husband, John, no opportunity other than to turn him out.

"We stopped right there," said Walther Solis, the director of horse operations at the Mabees' Golden Eagle Farm in the northeastern San Diego County town of Ramona.

Instead of competing in the preps for the Breeders' Cup in the fall of 2000, General Challenge was on the farm. Periodically, he was brought to Hollywood Park for a checkup, but he was sent back to the farm for further rest.

"He was just being a horse," Solis said. "We said if he didn't make it back to the races, we'd retire him and let him be happy at the farm. But this horse was telling us he wanted to keep racing."

Last summer, nearly two years after his most recent start, in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, General Challenge was sent to Baffert's stable at Hollywood Park, which is run by his longtime assistant, Tim Yakteen.

Shortly after he resumed exercise, General Challenge came up with a splint bone injury in his right foreleg, and he was on his way back to the farm.

"He popped a splint," Solis said. "They told us to give him six weeks of rest, but we gave him three months. We had the farm and the time. We didn't want to rush him."

Earlier this year, after resuming exercise at Golden Eagle Farm, General Challenge went straight to Baffert's first string at Santa Anita. A program of jogging followed by galloping eventually led to workouts. In recent months, he has trained without interruption.

The Tiznow Stakes was not Baffert's only choice for the General's comeback. There was an allowance race at the end of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting that General Challenge was eligible for, but the race failed to draw sufficient entries.

The Tiznow Stakes is a new race. It is run at 7 1/2 furlongs, the longest distance possible from the end of the backstretch chute at Hollywood Park. The distance is shorter than a route but longer than a conventional sprint.

"I don't know if that distance is for him, but we have to pick a spot," Baffert said.

Since the start of his career in the fall of 1998, General Challenge has never been far from the spotlight. He won his first stakes on Jan. 1, 1999, in the open division of the California Breeders' Champion Stakes at Santa Anita.

He won the Santa Catalina Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby before going off as part of the favored entry with the filly Excellent Meeting in the 1999 Kentucky Derby.

The General had a dreadful trip in the Derby. He was bumped at the start and forced to check on the final turn. After attempting a wide rally, he finished 11th, 6 1/4 lengths behind Charismatic.

General Challenge rebounded to score a convincing win against older horses in the Pacific Classic in August but was 10th in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park, losing any chance for the Horse of the Year title, which went to Charismatic.

At 4, General Challenge made six starts and was the dominant older horse of the 1999-2000 Santa Anita meeting. He won the Strub Stakes by 9 1/4 lengths in a modest field of 4-year-olds and beat a top open field, including the 1999 Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up, Budroyale, in the Santa Anita Handicap. The effort vaulted him to the top of the nation's handicap division, but it was his final win of the season.

In three subsequent starts, he managed only a third as a heavy favorite in the San Bernardino Handicap, a second in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and a fourth in the Pacific Classic.

Since the death of her husband last April, Betty Mabee has directed the family's expansive racing and breeding operations. Baffert said he is under strict orders to retire General Challenge if the comeback does not go well.

"If he keeps getting beat, Mrs. Mabee will take him home," he said.

Solis and Baffert have different opinions of what to expect from General Challenge on Saturday.

Solis said he thinks General Challenge is ready for a top effort. "He's very good," he said.

Baffert is taking a more cautious approach. "I think he still has that competitive spirit," Baffert said. "He has that long stride, and he's sound. I think it will take him a race or two to get back."

A victory after a nearly 1,000-day layoff seems daunting. But if General Challenge stays in training, a ninth career stakes win may not be far off. It may not come in a $1 million race, or an event on the national stage, but for the people surrounding him, any trip to the winner's circle would bring satisfaction.

It would be all the more special if it occurred on Saturday.

Yakteen said, "It would be a great feeling and a great accomplishment - for Mrs. Mabee, Walther, and all the people at the farm."