08/13/2009 11:00PM

Mare can spur her barn's resurgence


DEL MAR, Calif. - Jenine Sahadi stared into the stall at the sleek bay mare and scowled. The sleek bay mare, named Gotta Have Her, pinned her ears and scowled back. Sahadi was fretting over a training issue - to school or not to school. The bay mare was merely imitating her trainer.

They're a good match, these two. Flinty, competitive, consistent to a fault. Sahadi has already proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she can handle a good horse. The list is led by Fastness, The Deputy, Elmhust, Golden Ballet, and champion Lit de Justice. The last few years have been tough, though, for the 46-year-old California native, as her starts and stable numbers have dwindled, while other barns in the neighborhood swell to bursting. For Sahadi, Gotta Have Her has been the steady, silver lining to the cloud. And even though she has yet to break through with a major stakes win, she has been so close so often that it only seems like a matter of time.

That time could come on Sunday at Del Mar, when Gotta Have Her and Tyler Baze will team up against nine other older fillies and mares in the 52nd running of the $350,000 John C. Mabee, formerly known as the Ramona Handicap. They will have Magical Fantasy to deal with, as well as Tuscan Evening, Patricia's Gem, Charming Legacy and the speedy Briecat.

The Mabee, at 1 1/8 miles on the grass, completes the top-heavy August festival for the division. Two weeks ago, reigning champ Forever Together won the $500,000 Diana Stakes at Saratoga at nine furlongs. Last week, it was Dynaforce taking the $750,000 Beverly D. over 9 1/2 furlongs of soft Arlington turf.

If the intention was to thin out the competition and spread the wealth with three races for the same kind of horses in 16 days, mission accomplished. At least attendance was good. If the Mabee field holds firm, 28 different middle-distance grass mares will have been on display in the three events.

Gotta Have Her, a 5-year-old daughter of Royal Academy, has been a thorn in the side of a lot of good California mares for nearly two years. She has been close in runnings of the Dahlia, the Tuzla and the Palomar, while throwing in victories in the Grade 3 Las Cienegas and the non-graded Harold Ramser along the way.

"Sure it's frustrating," Sahadi said as Gotta Have Her eyeballed a stranger. "But I'm proud of the way we've handled her, and she runs her race every time. I can't ask her to do more than that.

"She's always been tough," Sahadi went on. "It took her a while to learn. And she's still got that 'leave me alone' thing going, where she just goes to the back of her stall. Look, see - there go the ears again. I think she's telling us we've been here long enough."

Gotta Have Her is an admirable, if not overly social, specimen. There is plenty of leg, careful balance, and she's athletic enough to have begun life acting as if she wanted to be a front-runner. For the filly's own good, Sahadi and her crew were able to modify that behavior, and these days Gotta Have Her comes with a strong run, most recently in the Royal Heroine Mile at Hollywood Park, when she was a close third to Tuscan Evening and Patricia's Gem.

"Just when we got her to stop wanting to chase after a half-mile in 46, she relaxes and then gets these races where they go 47 and change, and she's just missing," Sahadi said.

Sahadi first spotted the mare as an unnamed yearling at Keeneland in 2005, out of the Rahy mare Winnowing. Beyond her obvious physical attributes, the filly's pedigree was a robust outcross for four generations. The trainer was in the company of her patrons, Richard and Sue Ann Masson, who operate as Green Lantern Stables, and made headlines in 2007 when they bought out partner Team Valor to take sole possession of the international stakes star Iridescence, now a member of their broodmare band.

"I'm a total crybaby at sales," Sahadi confessed. "When I saw her, I kept looking at Richard saying, 'I gotta have her. I'm not leaving here without her.' He would say, 'You going to serve cheese and crackers with that whine of yours?' "

The Massons got her for $300,000.

"They have a farm in Kentucky where they keep their horses," Sahadi added, "so I didn't know what they named her. When she came here off the plane, she was wearing a halter that said 'Gotta Have Her.' I had to laugh."

The investment has returned more than $440,000 in hard cash, plus whatever value Gotta Have Her will have as a broodmare. Certainly, she can be advertised as durable, with 20 starts, 6 wins and 8 other placings to her credit. Her poor lines are pretty easily explained - an unhappy dalliance with synthetics at Hollywood Park, a tough trip in the Del Mar Oaks, and an unfortunate journey to Churchill Downs, from which she returned with nothing but a bout of pneumonia.

Since last August, though, when the accomplished Vacare beat her a half-length on the Del Mar grass in the Palomar, Gotta Have Her has been right there in eight straight appearances. If any of the favorites drop the ball on Sunday, she will be right there to pounce. The trick will be getting her to smile for the camera.