SANTA ANITA : Mabee Emerging as Triple Threat


For someone who is not enthralled with the Kentucky Derby, John Mabee might have the best numerical chance of any owner-breeder in the country to win the race this year.

With the 117th Derby scheduled to be run nine weeks from today, Mabee’s stable has three viable candidates in Best Pal, Avenue of Flags and General Meeting. Best Pal, who finished second to Fly So Free in the Eclipse Award voting for best 2-year-old colt or gelding last year, will make his 3-year-old debut Sunday in the $150,000 San Rafael Stakes, Santa Anita’s first graded race of the year for Derby prospects.

Mabee’s other 3-year-olds will be tested later as part of a plan that is designed to keep the three apart as long as possible en route to Churchill Downs. Avenue Of Flags, who returned from ankle surgery to beat Excavate, the second choice on the morning line in the San Rafael, is scheduled to run a week from today in the Sausalito at Golden Gate Fields, and General Meeting, winner of the Bradbury at Santa Anita Feb. 20, is expected to try the San Felipe at the Arcadia track March 17.


If only one of the three horses shows enough in the weeks ahead, Mabee, who has been to the Kentucky Derby with his wife, Betty, several times, will have an easier time buying one of those high-priced box seats. The most rooting interest the Mabees have ever had in the Derby was when Current Hope, a horse they bred, finished 11th in 1983.

“I must admit that the Derby is not one of my favorite races,” Mabee said. “Many horses are pushed into it, and they wind up breaking down. Unbridled (last year’s Derby winner) is back in training this year, but you’ll never hear again from many of those horses that ran behind him. The Derby can take its toll. What I really hope is that these good 3-year-olds are still running for us in the fall. But if any of them run super between now and May, we’ll give it a shot in Louisville.”

The Mabee threesome has three trainers--Ian Jory will saddle Best Pal Sunday, David Hofmans trains General Meeting and Richard Mandella handles Avenue Of Flags. Mabee’s racing operation usually revolves around a number of trainers, and currently there are 16 on the payroll, handling about 175 horses. Mabee has seven trainers locally, four in Northern California, one in Arizona, two in England and two at the San Luis Rey Downs training center, where the stable has a few older horses and about 50 2-year-olds.

Coordinating this army of horsemen is Gayle Van Leer, Mabee’s racing manager. “It takes a lot of juggling,” she said. “I make the rounds at the tracks personally on a limited basis, and the rest of the work I do by phone. That phone rings a lot between 6 and 10 every morning. Several years ago, I trained horses at San Luis Rey, and some of these same trainers used to send me their second-string horses. So I know them quite well and that helps a lot.”

Asked why he uses so many trainers, Mabee said: “Certain trainers do better with certain kinds of horses. For instance, one trainer might be especially good at handling a nervous horse, while another trainer might be not so good. They’re all good trainers. Sometimes we’ll send what we think is a promising horse to a trainer who’s had some bad luck with another horse, to try to compensate him.”

Mabee, a San Diegan who heads Big Bear, one of the country’s largest supermarket chains, wondered aloud whether Best Pal, who hasn’t run since winning the Hollywood Futurity about three months ago, will be sharp enough Sunday to win the one-mile San Rafael. There are six other horses in the field--although Excavate is expected to run in an allowance race today--and all of them are ahead of Mabee’s horse in terms of 3-year-old seasoning.

The field starts with the undefeated Apollo on the inside, with Kent Desormeaux riding. Next, in order, come Best Pal with Gary Stevens; Excavate, Jose Santos; Sea Cadet, Laffit Pincay; Mane Minister, David Flores; Olympio, Eddie Delahoussaye, and Dinard, Chris McCarron. Best Pal and Sea Cadet will each carry 121 pounds; Dinard, Apollo, Mane Minister and Olympio 118 apiece, and Excavate 115.

Jeff Tufts, the Santa Anita linemaker, has made Dinard the 2-1 favorite. Excavate is 5-2, Best Pal 3-1, the Ron McAnally-trained entry of Sea Cadet and Olympio 7-2, Apollo 8-1 and Mane Minister 20-1.

The unknown ingredient is how these young horses will run on Santa Anita’s muddy track, which has been drenched by about six inches of rain this week. Best Pal, for instance, has never run on an off track and had the poorest race of his career last October, finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at cuppy Belmont Park. Jory’s only explanation was that the California-bred gelding couldn’t handle the deep going.

Best Pal, who was supplemented into the $1-million Breeders’ Cup race for $120,000 and cost Mabee a $50,000 late fee in order to run in the $1-million Hollywood Futurity, finished his 2-year-old season with six victories and one second in eight starts and earned more than $1 million.

Despite victories by General Meeting and Avenue Of Flags at the current Santa Anita meeting, the Mabee operation is having trouble breaking even because its owner, who also has an insurance company, is underwriting a policy that’s tied to guaranteed payoffs for the track’s Pick Nine. Santa Anita officials declined to say how much their insurer has paid out, but two Pick Nines alone have cost Mabee’s company a total of more than $400,000.

“I’ve told Santa Anita that they should change the structure of their Pick Nine, but they don’t want to listen to me,” said Mabee, who has kept confidential the amount of the premium that the track is paying. “If I do the coverage again, they won’t get such a sweet deal next time.”

Horse Racing Notes

John and Betty Mabee have bred all three of their Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Best Pal’s sire is Habitony, who won the Santa Anita Derby in 1977. Avenue of Flags and General Meeting are sons of Seattle Slew, who swept the Triple Crown in 1977. . . . The San Rafael has been run 10 times, and the only winner who also won the Santa Anita Derby has been Mister Frisky, who pulled off the double last year. . . . Gary Stevens, who will ride Best Pal for the first time, has won the San Rafael the last three years--with What A Diplomat, Music Merci and Mister Frisky.

A Wild Ride won for the first time for her new owner, Zenya Yoshida, when she splashed home Friday in the Manta Handicap at Santa Anita, beating Cozier by 3 1/2 lengths. Yoshida bought A Wild Ride for $525,000 out of a Calumet Farm consignment in Kentucky in January, and before Friday the 4-year-old filly had been third in both the La Canada and the Santa Margarita Handicap. Dominant Dancer, who would have been expected to battle A Wild Ride for the lead Friday, was scratched.