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Best Pal, Top Money Earner Among Cal-Breds, Dies

November 25, 1998|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Best Pal, the blue-collar gelding who earned $5.6 million, more than any other California-bred, died Tuesday in Ramona, Calif., at the farm where he was born. Leading a couple of 2-year-olds off the track at Golden Eagle Farm, Best Pal went to his knees, rolled over and never got up, gone at age 10 of an apparent heart attack.

"It's a sad day," said John Mabee, who with his wife Betty bred and raced Best Pal. "It's like we've lost someone in the family."

Best Pal was retired as an 8-year-old in February 1996 after having run 47 times in more than six years of racing. He won 18 races, all but one of them stakes, and captured some of the most coveted prizes in the game. His wins included the 1991 Pacific Classic at Del Mar, the 1992 Santa Anita Handicap and the 1993 Hollywood Gold Cup. He finished second, behind Strike The Gold, in the 1991 Kentucky Derby. Until Skip Away passed them this year, Best Pal and Alysheba shared the record for most wins in races worth $1 million or more. Best Pal's three $1-million wins came in the Pacific Classic, the Santa Anita Handicap and the 1990 Hollywood Futurity.

Best Pal was thought to be in good health and was frequently paraded before his legions of fans, most recently on Pacific Classic day at Del Mar in August.

"We'd put him out in his paddock for a couple of hours a day, and he seemed bored and depressed," said Rick Taylor, the Mabees' racing manager. "We began using him as a lead pony for the young horses and that seemed to improve his disposition."

Best Pal was modestly bred--by Habitony out of Ubetshedid--and was gelded before he ever raced. He was not nominated to the Breeders' Cup--a $500 omission that would later cost the Mabees almost $1 million in supplementary fees--and wasn't offered for sale as a yearling because it was estimated that he would have brought only $5,000 or $10,000.

When Best Pal won the Oaklawn Handicap in 1992, he passed Snow Chief, who had earned $3.3 million, on the money list for California-breds. Best Pal currently ranks seventh on the national earnings list with $5,668,245. Cigar, $185 short of $10 million, leads the list, and the other horses ahead of Best Pal are Skip Away, Alysheba, John Henry, Silver Charm and Singspiel.

"We always thought it would be a miracle if he did much on the track," John Mabee said Tuesday. "He was good in training early, but you never know until they hit the track. He went on to become the John Henry of his age. There's not going to be an autopsy, but if we did, I think we'd find that he had a good-sized heart."

Best Pal ran for three trainers. In the beginning, he was under the care of Ian Jory, who saddled him for wins in the Del Mar Futurity, the Norfolk at Santa Anita and the Hollywood Futurity in 1990. Best Pal lost out in a bid for an Eclipse Award when he ran sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park. The Mabees supplemented him for two Breeders' Cup Classics, a 10th-place finish in 1993 and a fifth in 1994.

Best Pal never did win an Eclipse Award. He came closest in 1992, even though he ran only five times, winning the San Fernando Stakes, the Strub, the Santa Anita Handicap and the Oaklawn Handicap before a splint-bone injury in May in the Pimlico Special knocked him out for the year.

Pleasant Tap was named champion for best older male, outvoting Best Pal, 154-115. "We were 10 lengths better than Pleasant Tap," said Gary Jones, who trained Best Pal then. "We would have only beaten him from here to [Mount] Rushmore."

Richard Mandella took over from Jones as trainer in 1994, but Best Pal's best days were behind him. He never fully recovered from the injury at Pimlico. His last graded stakes win came as a 7-year-old in the San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita in 1995, and his last start was a next-to-last finish in the 1996 San Pasqual Handicap.

Of the seven jockeys who rode him, Pat Valenzuela, Kent Desormeaux and Corey Black were the most successful. "He was my first $1-million winner," Desormeaux once said, "and that ride in the Santa Anita Handicap was one of the easiest I ever had. He just absolutely galloped that day. When he was good, he was the best. When he wasn't good, he was still the best."

In trying to win a second Santa Anita Handicap, Best Pal finished fifth in 1993 and second, only a head behind Urgent Request, in 1995.

"His wins in the Pacific Classic and the Big 'Cap meant the most to Betty and me," John Mabee said. Mabee, board chairman at Del Mar, had helped start the Pacific Classic, and Best Pal was only a 3-year-old when he won the first running, beating a strong field--all older horses--that included Unbridled, the 1990 Kentucky Derby winner.

When Best Pal was retired, the Mabees established a trust fund that was to pay for the horse's retirement in the event he outlived them. Best Pal will be buried under a 600-year-old oak tree, not far from the office at Golden Eagle Farm.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Best of Best Pal

Through the years with Best Pal:

*--*

1990 St. 1 2 3 Purses 8 6 1 0 $1,026,195

*--*

Major Wins: Del Mar Futurity, Norfolk, Hollywood Futurity

*--*

1991 St. 1 2 3 Purses 10 2 5 1 $1,107,500

*--*

Major Wins: Swaps, Pacific Classic

*--*

1992 St. 1 2 3 Purses 5 4 0 0 $1,672,000

*--*

Majors Wins: Strub, Santa Anita Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap

*--*

1993 St. 1 2 3 Purses 8 2 1 2 $903,750

*--*

Major Wins: Hollywood Gold Cup, California Cup Classic

*--*

1994 St. 1 2 3 Purses 7 2 2 1 $420,200

*--*

Major Wins: Native Diver Handicap

*--*

1995 St. 1 2 3 Purses 8 2 2 0 $538,600

*--*

Major Wins: San Antonio Handicap

*--*

1996 St. 1 2 3 Purses 1 0 0 0 $0 TOTALS 47 18 11 4 $5,668,245

*--*

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