04/24/2003 12:00AM

Golden Eagle banner still flies

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - If it is true that time heals all wounds, then General Challenge has a head start of nearly two years on his owner, Betty Mabee.

General Challenge, a flamboyant chestnut gelding with legs dipped to the knees in white, was last seen under the Golden Eagle Farm colors of John and Betty Mabee on an August afternoon at Del Mar during the summer of 2000. That was the day he failed at odds-on to win his second straight Pacific Classic.

Since then, General Challenge has been trying to recuperate from foreleg injuries that should stop most older horses cold. A bum tendon in one, a fractured splint bone in the other. Nature was trying to tell him something, and Nature usually wins.

The inevitable has been postponed, however, and on Saturday at Hollywood Park, the 7-year-old version of General Challenge will return for Golden Eagle under the care of the Bob Baffert stable.

The setting will be the first running of the $150,000 Tiznow Stakes, one of the highlights of the $1.3 million Gold Rush Day program designed to showcase the best of the California Thoroughbred industry.

Still, the sight of General Challenge in a restricted race will be a bit unsettling. This is a horse who grew accustomed to center stage at an early age. At 3 he won the Santa Anita Derby and the Pacific Classic. At 4 he took the Strub Stakes and the Santa Anita Handicap. He ran in a Kentucky Derby and a Breeders' Cup Classic. After nine wins in 18 starts, General Challenge was well on his way to emulating the greatest star in the Golden Eagle firmament, Best Pal. Then he got hurt.

"I would hope and pray he runs the best he can and comes home safely," Betty Mabee said earlier this week. "I know it's a gamble. I've had some misgivings about even trying to bring him back at his age.

"He's had every preparation we could give him," she went on. "But at any given moment . . . well, they tell you when they're through. It's our job to listen. And he has been telling us that he really wants to run. Besides, John was so positive that with the proper treatment he would come back. Generally, John was right."

Unfortunately, John Mabee is not around to find out. Just over a year ago, Mabee suffered a final, disabling stroke while at Golden Eagle Farm, near the northeastern San Diego County town of Ramona. Betty discovered her husband crumpled in the shower of their ranch house, located in a shady glen not far from the training barn where General Challenge occupied the number one stall. Mabee died on April 22, 2002, at the age of 80.

"When a person starts having little strokes - and John had a couple of pretty good-sized ones - you know that somewhere the other shoe is going to drop," Betty said. "You just don't know when. When his came, it was so final." So, after a marriage of 60 years, Betty Mabee awoke to a world without John. It was a world overflowing with Thoroughbreds, hundreds of broodmares and foals, racehorses in all stages of condition and development, spread out over a small army of trainers.

And while Betty had shared much of the Thoroughbred business with her husband, it was John who drove the bus, creating an operation that cranked out more than 140 stakes winners over the last 30 years.

"He could recite everything about a broodmare he paid $37,000 for at a Keeneland auction in ought-two," Betty said with a laugh. "He had all of that stored in his memory bank. Most of it he shared with somebody, but we are finding some holes that we need to fill in ourselves. He had many strengths, but he was not a delegator. He was a one-man band."

The continuity of a racing empire has no guarantees. More often than not, surviving spouses or subsequent generations have little interest in the hard work and heartbreak behind those few glorious afternoons in the winner's circle. With the help of her son Larry, Betty Mabee is determined to see the Golden Eagle banner flying high again.

"He is my lifesaver," Betty said of her son. "He pitched right in from day one. A year ago, after John died, when everybody left the house and things kind of quieted down, we sat down at the kitchen table and said, 'Where do we begin?' We've been on a skateboard every since."

They began with a revitalization of the farm itself, and a thinning of the great herd of broodmares that Golden Eagle had assembled in both Kentucky and California. More than 100 were sold at auction last year, and more will be sold later this year.

In the meantime, a new crop of yearlings is starting to bloom at Golden Eagle. Betty Mabee asked her farm manager, Walther Solis, to pick out the best of the bunch to bear a very special name. A son of Souvenir Copy fit the bill.

"Walther and I are always 'talking' to John, trying to think of what he would do in a situation," Betty said. "So I applied for the name and I got it - Talking to John."