10/31/2001 1:00AM

John Mabee Mr. California Cup

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ARCADIA, Calif. - John Mabee apologized. He said he couldn't talk too long. He reminded his caller that he turned 80 last summer, and that he was still feeling the effects of a stroke suffered last year.

"It's beautiful out here, though," Mabee said from his home on his 570-acre Golden Eagle Farm, just north of San Diego in the rock-studded hills near Ramona. "I'm walking around and the sun is shining. It's a great day."

Mabee is accustomed to doing more than simply strolling in the sunshine. After building successful businesses in retail, insurance, and commercial breeding - and surviving the ups and downs that come with playing such high-stakes games - Mabee's pace these days is a far cry from the height of his entrepreneurial powers.

"Outside of my head, I'm feeling fine, but there's a lot of things I can't handle," Mabee conceded. "I can read the condition book, figure out which horses should go in which races. And I talk to the trainers and the employees here at the farm."

Okay, so what's different? Sounded like the same John Mabee who has been at the helm of California's most successful breeding and racing operation for the past 15 years. The term "hands-on" was invented to describe his involvement with his Thoroughbreds, and many a trainer has chafed at Mabee's intense oversight.

The success has been based on both quantity and quality. Mabee and his wife, Betty, have received three Eclipse Awards as North America's leading breeder. In 1992 they topped all owners in purse money. They have sold a whole herd of high-priced yearlings. And their distinctive maroon-and-gold colors have been flown by such major stakes winners as Best Pal, Dramatic Gold, Excellent Meeting, Beautiful Glass, Event of the Year, River Flyer, and General Challenge.

More significantly - at least for the purposes of this week's action - the Mabees are the all-time leading owners in the history of the California Cup, which will be presented for the 12th time at Santa Anita Park on Saturday.

In fact, it was Mabee's decision to run the 3-year-old Best Pal in the 1991 Cal Cup Classic that helped put the event on the map. After winning the inaugural Pacific Classic that summer - defeating Unbridled and Twilight Agenda in the process - Best Pal was among the marquee names of his division. And even though he was upset in the Cal Cup Classic by Charmonnier, his presence lent an air of authenticity that was missing from the first Classic in 1990.

In 1993, at the age of 5, Best Pal finally won his Cal Cup Classic. It should also be noted that he conceded 10 pounds to the runner-up and 19 pounds to the third-place finisher, but that was the price he paid for being Best Pal.

In addition to Best Pal's Classic, the Mabees have won six other Cal Cup races: the Distaff twice with Bel's Starlet, the Matron twice with Yearly Tour and Lovely Habit, the Juvenile with Sunday Stroll, and the Juvenile Fillies with Career Collection.

"It's a great event," Mabee said. "They should have three or four more days just like it every year."

Mabee could fill his share. Golden Eagle continues to breed in numbers, both in Kentucky and California. Heading for the track next year will be a wave of 2-year-old colts and fillies by Souvenir Copy, the Mabees' Del Mar Futurity and Derby Trial winner. Event of the Year, their 1999 Strub Stakes winner, has foals on the ground this year.

Mabee's health, however, has prevented him from maintaining his high profile of the past, when he was a regular at sales across the land and always on the scene at Del Mar as chairman of the board of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. But he was able to attend the recent Barretts sales in Pomona, and he plans to be at Santa Anita on Saturday for this year's Cal Cup celebration.

Golden Eagle maybe has three runners in on Saturday. Notable Career and Favorite Funtime have been entered in the Matron. Song of the Moment is in the Distaff. At their best, they could be competitive. Mabee, however, is not expecting any miracles.

"I don't say it's the greatest group we've ever had," Mabee said. "I doubt if we'll win any, but we might."

If they don't, it would be consistent with a comparatively poor 2001 season for Golden Eagle, especially when held up to the lofty standards the Mabees have set over the years. Bad luck on the racetrack, combined with turnover in the operation, has kept the Golden Eagle name out of lights for the first time in a long while.

"There's a lot of reasons why," Mabee said. "But on the other hand, let's look at the future. As far as I'm concerned, 2002 is going to be a great year for Golden Eagle. I'm very happy with the horses who are coming along next year. For someone who's 80, I'm pretty optimistic."