11/06/2003 1:00AM

Returning Golden Eagle to glory

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RAMONA, Calif. - After all that has transpired in the past 18 months - or 18 days, depending upon the crisis - it should come as no surprise that Betty Mabee failed to take note of a significant anniversary in the history of her Golden Eagle Farm racing operation.

Saturday's celebration of the California Cup at Santa Anita marks 10 years since Best Pal defeated Native Boundary and Goldigger's Dream in the 1993 running of the California Cup Classic, the jewel in the Cal Cup crown. Best Pal was not only the most successful Thoroughbred ever raised and raced by Golden Eagle, he was also the best horse to ever appear in a Cal Cup event, hands down. The old horse is sorely missed.

However, since April 22, 2002, Betty Mabee has been dealing with the death of her husband, John Mabee, who built the Golden Eagle racing and breeding empire of California into a North American powerhouse. The Mabees had been married for 60 years.

John Mabee left behind hundreds of broodmares, yearlings, and horses of racing age, as well as a racing and breeding program that had suffered while Mabee dealt with failing health near the end of his life. It has been Betty Mabee's job - with the help of her son, Larry - to right the Golden Eagle ship.

That has been challenging enough. Then came the afternoon of Oct. 26, when a lost hunter set off a signal flare that sparked the deadly Cedar Fire, which eventually consumed nearly 300,000 acres. Parts of Southern California were already ablaze when the Cedar Fire began, but this one, at least from Betty Mabee's perspective, was more terrifying than all the rest. That is because the Cedar Fire began near the town of Ramona, home of Golden Eagle Farm.

"It was breathing down our neck," Mabee said this week, as cooler weather helped firefighters finally get control.

Golden Eagle Farm has been a Ramona landmark for nearly 30 years, dating back to the days when the Mabees decided to get seriously involved in the breeding business. Five years ago they purchased a 300-acre annex, about 12 miles from the main farm, and christened it Golden Eagle West. In addition to overflow horses, the new property was set up as a residence for many of the Golden Eagle employees.

By the evening of Oct. 26, hot, dry winds out of the east were pushing the newborn Cedar Fire right toward Golden Eagle West, which is situated at the end of a narrow country thoroughfare called Mussey Grade Road.

"It's a death trap," Mabee said. "There's one way in and one way out. And they evacuated the entire Mussey Grade Road area. Our trailers were loading and unloading horses as fast as they could turn around. We took them to the main farm, which is pretty well protected. And we ended up taking in about 40 other horses that had no place to go."

Firefighters made a stand at Golden Eagle West, and they won. A number of sheds and smaller structures were lost, along with large swaths of brush and trees, but the homes of Golden Eagle employees were saved.

"In the end we came through it pretty well," Mabee said, "especially considering those who didn't."

The Cedar Fire destroyed more than 2,400 homes and claimed 14 lives.

Back at the main Golden Eagle property, flames licked the rocky ridges surrounding the farm but came no closer, even though there was damage to surrounding areas. Among the natural wonders spared at Golden Eagle was the 100-year-old oak tree that spreads majestically near the farm offices, providing shade to the grave sites of Best Pal; his sire, Habitony; and his dam, Ubetshedid. At age 23, Ubetshedid was laid to rest last summer after a battle with crippling arthritis.

Best Pal died of heart failure in 1998, at age 10, while in active retirement at Golden Eagle Farm. His legacy continues to this day, even though he no longer reigns as California's all-time leading money winner. Tiznow had to win the Breeders' Cup Classic twice in order to top Best Pal, $6.4 million to $5.6 million.

Matters not, though. As a gelding, Best Pal raced for six full seasons under the care of trainers Ian Jory, Gary Jones, and Richard Mandella, making 47 starts and winning 18 races, as well as the hearts of Southern California racing fans. When he was at the top of his game, especially at ages 2 through 5, an appearance by Best Pal was cause for celebration. And when he raced at Del Mar, in his own "back yard," fans would flock just to applaud the old boy in the walking ring.

By the time he reached the end of the line, as an 8-year-old in the winter of 1996, Best Pal had won nearly every major race in California, including the Pacific Classic, the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Del Mar Futurity, the Hollywood Futurity, the Swaps Stakes, the San Antonio . . . and the Cal Cup Classic.

The 1993 Cal Cup Classic did not offer Best Pal the toughest battle of his career. But he was fighting the effects of an oncoming quarter crack at the time, and Jones was pleased enough to see his star get the job done. In his next start, Best Pal finished 10th at odds of 9-5 in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

Golden Eagle will be represented in the 2003 Cal Cup Classic by Commander's Flag, a 4-year-old son of Spinning World who will be taking on Sky Jack, Hot Market, and defending Classic champ Calkins Road at nine furlongs on the main track. Trained by Bruce Headley, Commander's Flag has won 3 of 10 starts and finished third in the Tiznow Stakes last spring, part of Hollywood Park's Gold Rush Day for Cal-breds. He will be attempting to follow in a strong Cal Cup tradition for Golden Eagle that includes not only Best Pal, but also winners Bel's Starlet, Yearly Tour, Sunday Stroll, and Career Collection.

In the meantime, Betty Mabee is busy trying to revitalize the Golden Eagle breeding fortunes. As a three-time winner of the Eclipse Award as North America's outstanding breeder, Golden Eagle's standards are understandably high. In recent years, the Mabees provided considerable support to three homebred stallions by Seattle Slew - General Meeting, Avenue of Flags, and Event of the Year - and Mabee realizes it is time to invigorate the mix.

"I think we got our money's worth out of Seattle Slew," Mabee said. "But we have to create some new bloodlines. We intended to go to the recent sales in Kentucky to buy some broodmares, to bring in some new lines, but then we had to cancel. After the fires, everyone was just exhausted. But there's a January sale, so maybe they didn't buy all the broodmares."

While Mabee tries to bring another Best Pal into the world, the memory of the original lingers. Among Best Pal's die-hard fans is Murray Johnson, trainer of Perfect Drift, who invoked the name last year as he prepared his gelding for the Belmont Stakes. Johnson witnessed Best Pal's early career firsthand while beginning his career in California, and was left with an indelible model for the thoroughly professional, money-winning gelding. He said as much in an interview with turf writer Neil Milbert.

"If Perfect Drift turns out to be the next Best Pal, so be it," Johnson declared.

"That's very kind," Betty Mabee said. "It's wonderful how I sometimes hear his name mentioned when I least expect it. If you see Murray, tell him thank you."