04/25/2002 12:00AM

California breeder-owner John Mabee dead at 80

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - John Mabee, a titan in California racing who founded the state's most successful breeding operation, Golden Eagle Farm, died Wednesday evening in Del Mar. He was 80.

Mabee had a stroke on April 14 - his third in two years - and was sent earlier this week to Casa Palmera Care Center in Del Mar. He died at 11:30 Wednesday night of stroke-related complications.

Mabee bred more than 150 stakes winners, including the popular Calbred gelding Best Pal, who won 18 races and $5.6 million from 47 starts. It was Best Pal who gave Mabee and retired trainer Gary Jones their biggest thrill in racing, a triumph in the inaugural Pacific Classic in 1991. Mabee's impact in California was primarly as a breeder.

"The racing industry has lost two giants, Mr. Mabee was the Ogden Phipps of the West Coast," said Jones. "California has never had one like him, and probably never will again."

Phipps, who bred and raced Buckpasser and Personal Ensign, died on Monday at the age of 93.

Mabee had a reputation for being tough. However, those who knew him best said his straightforward demeanor and natural instincts were reasons he was able to transform an undeveloped plot of land in Ramona in 1973 to Golden Eagle Farm, a 568-acre operation that led the state's breeding list six times. Mabee earned three Eclipse Awards (1991, 1997, and 1998) as the nation's outstanding breeder.

Mabee changed trainers often, but Jones's tenure with him lasted 20 years. "Was he tough? You're damn right he was tough," Jones said. "You don't survive in this business not being tough. He was very demanding, strong, and he never slowed down. I've never seen a man with so much passion."

John Couchman Mabee was born on Aug. 21, 1921, in Seymour, Iowa. He founded the Big Bear chain of grocery stores and held large real estate interests in San Diego County. Mabee also founded the Golden Eagle Insurance company, a workers' compensation insurer that was cited by the state of California for being under-reserved and was subsequently sold.

His death came two years to the day from his first stroke in 2000, and four years to the day after one of his most frustrating racing experiences, when the early favorite for the 1998 Kentucky Derby, stakes winner Event of the Year, was injured in a workout, days before the Derby.

In addition to Best Pal, second all-time leading Cal-bred and runner-up in the 1991 Kentucky Derby, other stakes winners Mabee bred and owned included Fantastic Look, Beautiful Melody, General Challenge, River Flyer, Excellent Meeting, and General Meeting.

Event of the Year's trainer at the time of the 1998 Derby was Jerry Hollendorfer, who recalled Mabee's acute powers of observation.

"He was one of the smartest men I ever met," Hollendorfer said. "He had a handle on everything. He was there [at Churchill Downs] that morning. Nobody else noticed that the horse wasn't cooling out properly. He didn't say anything. He just leaned over and said 'Take care of him.' He knew. I think it bothered him quite a bit that we never made it to the race."

Though he never won the Kentucky Derby, Mabee won several Grades 1 races, including the Hollywood Derby, Hollywood Gold Cup, Santa Anita Handicap, Santa Anita Derby, Oaklawn Handicap, Hollywood Futurity, and Pacific Classic.

Mabee's wife, Betty, said Thursday that the extensive Golden Eagle breeding operation will continue, while the racing operation will be scaled back.

"[Golden Eagle] will stay as it is, with everyone in place," she said. "We've got a great crew; nothing will change. Sure, there will be more horses put up for auctions, because we have so much horseflesh. But we will move on, because [John] would want us to move on."

Golden Eagle owns approximately 170 broodmares, most in California. Golden Eagle also stands top California sire General Meeting and first-crop sire Souvenir Copy. Mabee, president of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (1978-90) and former chairman of the board, was a founding director of Breeders' Cup Ltd.

"He touched so many lives," said Betty Mabee. "So many people knew him."

She added that Mabee was a "numbers man" who never used a calculator but instead added numbers in his head. Mabee was quick to adapt to contemporary means of performance analysis. He purchased his first two horses in 1957, long before speed figures gained popularity. By the early 1990's, Mabee was well versed in the utility of Beyer Speed Figures. In 1997-98, it was routine for Mabee to phone Daily Racing Form each Monday to inquire about the Beyer Speed Figures earned by his stakes winners.

Mabee also was aware of the popularity of Best Pal, who ranked as the all-time leading California-bred money winner until unseated last fall by Tiznow. Best Pal, trained first by Ian Jory, then by Gary Jones, and finally by Richard Mandella, was nearing the end of the line as an 8-year-old. Mandella recalled that the decision to retire the gelding was largely because of Best Pal's popularity.

"He loved that horse," Mandella said. "He retired as sound as he could be, but he'd kind of lost interest the last few races. If it hadn't been Best Pal, we would have freshened him up and made a comeback. But Mr. Mabee was really worried about the fans with that horse. He said it just wouldn't be right if we brought him back and he didn't do well."

Mandella added: "[Mabee] was absolutely a straight shooter, a good horseman with good instinct. Obviously, he had great instincts, looking at pedigrees and conformation and matching all of the odds and ends and putting it all together."

Mabee is survived by his wife, Betty, and son, Larry.