03/01/2002 12:00AM

General Challenge just about ready to return to track

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Two of the last four California-bred winners of the Santa Anita Handicap were bred by John and Betty Mabee's Golden Eagle Farm. This pair, Best Pal and General Challenge, were top-class racehorses. Breeding two such horses is no small achievement, but then Golden Eagle is no half-hearted operation, and the Mabees have the Eclipse Awards as leading American breeders to prove it.

Best Pal and General Challenge were both geldings, and both were among the elite of their crops. And at one point in his 4-year-old season, General Challenge appeared poised to leap to an even higher level. After impressive victories in the Strub and Santa Anita Handicap, General Challenge seemed to have the division at his mercy. Losses in the Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic, however, preceded an injury that sent him to the sidelines. First ankle trouble, then other leg problems have kept General Challenge from racing since August 2000, but there are positive signs the big horse may be returning to the track.

Earlier this week, John Mabee said "General Challenge is here on the farm. He is happy and doing very well. The vet is going to check him over in March, and we hope to have him back to the track by April or May. It could be March, but that might be a little optimistic.

"Currently, he feels good and has his carrots morning and night. He gets walking exercise four or five times a week. I believe he can make Del Mar, but if not, he should be back by the fall."

General Challenge's return will be a treat for racing fans and is eagerly awaited by his breeders at Golden Eagle.

Not only were Best Pal and General Challenge homebred stock from Golden Eagle, but their sires, Habitony and General Meeting, also stood at the farm.

The Mabees also bred General Meeting, a bay son of Seattle Slew out of the Alydar mare Alydar's Promise. Second in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity to Best Pal, General Meeting went on to win a couple of stakes at 3, although he never quite ran back to his form with Best Pal. Although Best Pal went on to race with great success and prove himself one of the very best athletes in the crop of 1988, General Meeting went to stud in California and soon left his mark on breeding in the Golden State.

Among his best offspring are Grade 1 winners Excellent Meeting (winner of the Oak Leaf, Hollywood Starlet, Santa Anita Oaks, and Las Virgenes) and General Challenge, who has won three Grade 1 events (the Big Cap, Pacific Classic, and Santa Anita Derby).

After winning the Santa Anita Derby impressively, General Challenge and his stablemate Excellent Meeting, who had just won the Fantasy Stakes for fillies at Oaklawn Park, went off favored for the 1999 Kentucky Derby. Excellent Meeting acquitted herself admirably, running an excellent fifth, beaten 2 1/4 lengths.

General Challenge, however, never got in a lick.

Breaking from post 14 in the 19-horse field, General Challenge finished 11th after a rough trip.

General Challenge came back at Del Mar, however, and won the Pacific Classic. Then early the next year, General Challenge continued to dominate his West Coast opposition with victories in the Strub and Santa Anita Handicap.

As expected for a horse capable of siring stock like General Challenge and Excellent Meeting, General Meeting is one of the most successful stallions in California, and there has been intermittent interest in him from Kentucky farms. Mabee, however, said, "He will stay in California," and he has.

Mabee has historically retired his horses to Golden Eagle and has bred high-quality stakes winners from them. In California, he also stands the good Seattle Slew stallion Avenue of Flags and Santa Anita Derby winner Event of the Year.

Mabee parted from this practice by sending his Del Mar Futurity winner Souvenir Copy to stand in Kentucky. A son of Mr. Prospector, Souvenir Copy is out of one of Mabee's best female lines, and the breeder said, "I believe he has a good shot. We have 62 of his 2-year-olds, with three of them already on the track, and another eight or 10 o?f them going to the track next week. We'll have some ready to run when the first races for juveniles come up."