Best Pal wasn’t the sort of thoroughbred that 8-year-olds give their feelings to. He didn’t have the open charm and masculine looks of the broad-chested Secretariat or the physically perfect Ruffian.
Seven years of racing had Best Pal earning over $5 million. Best Pal won 17 stakes for owners John and Betty Mabee. He is still California’s all-time, second-leading money winner.[/caption]
He was a commonly seen brown color with common features and body structure. But the high-achieving gelding eventually won 17 stakes races and $5,668,245 for grateful owners John and Betty Mabee of Golden Eagle Farm in southern California.
And he was inducted into the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga in 2010.
Until the redoubtable Tiznow eclipsed his earnings record when he won his second straight Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1998, Best Pal was the all-time leading money-winner from California.
He was a descendant of Princequillo on both sides of his family tree. And that family tree also had branches with names like Gallant Man, Round Table, Nasrullah, and the mother of Secretariat, Somethingroyal.
The Mabees had always been based in California, but they hadn’t been handed or bequeathed a ranch or farm that bent toward thoroughbred racing. In fact, the twosome only got into racing in 1957 when they went to the Del Mar yearling sales and bought two youngsters.
They would eventually race those two in their silks of burgundy and gold with a gold eagle on the back.
Through the years, the Mabees would have over 150 stakes winners and had an unbroken streak of 19 years in a row where they were California’s leading breeders, leading the pack at Del Mar for a record-setting six straight years.
Of all the Golden Eagle Farm homebreds, Best Pal was the most accomplished and the most loved.
Larry Mabee was chided at times for having gelded Best Pal, but as he said, “His progeny would not have won any beauty contests at the sales . . . and that is what most people were buying.”
Besides, if he had not been gelded, Best Pal would never have raced more than four years and he raced seven years.
He seemed to always have just a little more competitive spirit or spunk than those he was pitted against. And his health was such that he was more consistent and able to train as his trainers wished, better than his competition could.
He became the first of four thoroughbreds to win a valued trio of California’s signature races — the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, and the Charles Strub Stakes. Three others have accomplished the feat through the passing years.
As a remarkable two-year-old, Best Pal won six of his eight starts, including five stakes races. Only his first lifetime race, a maiden special weight event, saw Best Pal win something other than a stakes race.
He earned more than $1 million as a two-year-old and was first in six of his eight tries at that age.
As a three-year-old he was handled so well by trainer Gary Jones and the Mabees that he did enough to earn a berth in the 1991 Kentucky Derby.
In one of his few races outside of California, he was second to Strike the Gold in the Kentucky Derby.
Earning more than $1 million as a three-year-old, Best Pal showed his pluck and consistency at age four by winning another $1 million in purse money. Through three years of racing, he had already won 11 stakes events.
There would be another 23 races in the next three years with another six stakes wins to show for all the combined efforts of owners, trainers (Jones, Ian Jory, and Richard Mandella) the Eagle Farm staff, and Best Pal himself.
Finally, at age eight, he raced only once before being retired.
His final on-track record showed 47 races. Eighteen times he had been first and 11 times he had been second. The four third-place finishes left him with a career record of 33 in-the-money finishes in his 47 races.
Owner John Mabee passed away in 2001 and his wife, Betty, died in 2010. After being retired, Best Pal had died on a walk to the training track at Golden Eagle Farm. He was only 8 at the time.
The son of the Mabees, Larry, has steadily scaled back the scope of the operation at Golden Eagle Farm, a facility that once had nearly 600 acres and about 800 thoroughbreds. The younger Mabee is developing a 28-acre facility in Ramona, California that will have a 21-stall barn for the small number of weanlings and yearlings he plans to keep.
Said Larry Mabee, “We keep our mares in Kentucky where the top stallions are. Then we bring the babies back here to raise before we send them to the sales in Kentucky as yearlings.
“When you’re in the breeding business you race some out of necessity. If the horses don’t sell, you race.
“We don’t press our 2-year-olds. You don’t see our horses at the racetrack until they’re three.”
Best Pal will probably be the best-known and best on-track performer ever to represent Golden Eagle Farm and John and Betty Mabee.
He will also be one of the state of California’s all-time greatest thoroughbreds . . . in spite of his ordinary looks that would never have won him a beauty contest (and triple-figure bid) at a sales auction.