04/25/2002 11:00PM

Gold Rush ode to Mabee's memory

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Sometimes we require too much from our tycoons. It isn't enough that they be movers and shakers, ever stretching and testing the economics of the culture. They've also got to be swell guys, huggable and quaint, lest they come off distant and unlovable in the eyes of a critical public.

So they are remembered for the ways they fell shy of the ideal. John D. Rockefeller was a skinflint. Henry Ford was a fascist. William Randolph Hearst was a world-class paranoid. They managed to live with their faults.

John C. Mabee loved horse racing. He loved it with a deep and abiding commitment that paralleled the best marriage, sharing its woes, forgiving its many faults. But because he did not beat railings with a rolled up program, or lift his arms to the heavens when cameras were in range, or crack wise and entertain the press, he was considered a grump, a sour-puss, a hard case.

It was a bum rap, but Mabee didn't care. Or if he did, he didn't let it show. He was a buttoned-down Midwesterner who played the game large and very hard, putting his money and his ego squarely on the line.

What is it about these guys raised in Iowa during the Depression? What kind of hardships tempered their ambition? Allen Paulson came out of the Mississippi River town of Clinton, where he collected scrap metal and junk for meager pocket money. The best thing John Mabee found in tiny Seymour was Betty, his high-school sweetheart and lifemate to be.

Both Paulson and Mabee left Iowa to make their fortunes in California. One was a mechanic by trade, the other a grocer. Taken to extremes, such job skills can translate into Gulfstream Aerospace and Big Bear Markets. But not usually.

Both men got hooked on horseflesh along the way, and neither was satisfied until they reached the highest levels. For Mabee, that meant breeding and selling million-dollar babies, right along with winning and losing million-dollar races.

Mabee's influence as California's leading breeder will pervade the proceedings on Sunday when Hollywood Park presents its Gold Rush Day, celebrating the best that the state of California has to offer. There has been only one California breeder to win the Eclipse Award, which the Mabees did three times. Too bad that none of the 10 races on the Gold Rush program is named for a horse identified with the Mabees. They certainly had enough candidates.

But Mabee's best-bred horses usually went to market, and the customers were satisfied. Of the more than 140 stakes winners bred by John and Betty Mabee, well over half were raced by other people. Those they kept were an odd array: slab-sided Johnica and massive Beautiful Glass, gangly General Challenge, unlucky Jeanne Jones, bad-legged Dramatic Gold, an angel named Bel's Starlet. One thing they all had in common. Man, could they run.

They won races by the bushel. Two Santa Anita Handicaps, two Santa Anita Oaks, a pair of Strubs, three Fantasies and five Del Mar Futurities, just to name a few.

Mabee's best horse was Best Pal. Gelded, unnominated, shunted to the second string, he was the ultimate irony for a market breeder, and living proof that all the careful planning and matchmaking in the world is useless in the face of random selection and just plain luck.

True to his personality, though, Mabee expected great things from Best Pal once his abilities were revealed. Humble beginnings were no excuse for lack of accomplishment. When Best Pal lost a close one in the 1991 Santa Anita Derby, the only remedy would be a different result on the first Saturday in May. When Strike the Gold surprised Best Pal in the Kentucky Derby with a burst down the middle of the track, Mabee's disappointment was palpable.

Three months later, Mabee stood alongside Best Pal in the winner's circle at Del Mar, both of them victorious in the first running of the $1 million Pacific Classic. As chairman of the track, the race was Mabee's idea. When he came up with it, Best Pal had yet to be born. Some things are destined, whether we like it or not.

When Best Pal retired to the Mabee's Golden Eagle Farm as the leading money-winner in California history - a hometown hero and the subject of a popular children's book - the Mabees set up a trust fund to meet his needs in perpetuity, long after they both figured to be gone.

Best Pal died prematurely in 1998, in the midst of an active retirement, and is buried at the farm. John Mabee was at home at Golden Eagle last week when he was felled by the stroke that took his life at the age of 80. Comrades in arms, both of them tough as twisted steel, they made a mark impossible to erase.