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Obituaries

John Mabee, 80; Empire Was Built on Markets and Horses

April 26, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Mabee, who parlayed a $2,000 investment in a mom-and-pop grocery store into a financial empire that included a supermarket chain, an insurance company and one of thoroughbred racing's most successful breeding and racing farms, has died. He was 80.

Mabee, who suffered two strokes in the last two years, the most recent less than two weeks ago at his Golden Eagle Farm in Ramona, Calif., died Wednesday night at a care facility in Del Mar, Calif.

A hard-nosed businessman, Mabee made headlines in 1997 when he battled with Chuck Quackenbush, California's state insurance commissioner, and received $20 million when his Golden Eagle Insurance Co. was first taken over by the state and then sold.

At the time, Golden Eagle was the third-largest provider of workers' compensation coverage in California and was thought by the state to be on shaky financial ground because of inadequate cash reserves. But Mabee said that Quackenbush's investigation of Golden Eagle was politically motivated.

The supermarkets and the insurance premiums might have paid the bills, but it was the breeding, selling and racing of his horses that stimulated Mabee the most.

"Watch John Mabee during a race," the bloodstock agent Rollin Baugh once said. "You'll see the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old kid from a person who is basically cool and reserved."

Mabee bought his first two horses for $6,000 at a Del Mar yearling auction in 1957. He had visited the Del Mar track--where he would later become president, board chairman and overseer of an $80-million rebuilding program in the 1990s--four or five times a year and, remembering his affection for horses while growing up on a small family farm near Des Moines, decided to dabble in the racing business.

"I had no idea when I bought those two yearlings," he said many years later, "that I would end up as the leading breeder in the country."

At his death, Mabee's horse operation, based at his 568-acre spread in Ramona and buttressed by his wife's active participation, was still going full-bore. About 400 horses, including seven stallions, are stabled at the Ramona farm, and about 170 broodmares are spread between the California property and three farms in Kentucky.

"No one man has had more involvement in racing in California, or has done more for Del Mar in particular than John," said Joe Harper, president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

Golden Eagle Farm gave California horse breeding a national presence in a business traditionally dominated by Kentucky horsemen. Mabee bought shares in top Kentucky stallions, breeding his mares to the likes of Nijinsky II, Secretariat, Mr. Prospector and Seattle Slew. Golden Eagle-bred horses won 206 races last year and earned $5 million, which ranked seventh nationally. Mabee's own runners won 60 races and earned $2.1 million.

In 1992, Mabee led all North American breeders with purses of $7 million, and he also won the owners' title with earnings of $5.4 million. He won Eclipse awards, racing's highest honors, for breeding in 1991, '97 and '98. In 1998, horses he bred earned a leading $8.2 million.

"People think it's a sport," Mabee once said, "but if you're going to breed and race, it's like becoming a doctor. It takes 12 years to become a doctor, and it took 12 years or more to learn the horse business."

Mabee's best horse, Best Pal, won three $1-million races and earned $5.6 million, the second-highest total for a California-bred. But Best Pal, not regally bred, was given little chance before he raced. It was estimated that he would have brought no more than $10,000 at auction, so Mabee kept him and had him castrated, which meant that he could not earn high stud fees.

Racing from 1990 to 1996, Best Pal won 18 of 47 starts, including some of the premier races in California--the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Santa Anita Handicap and the 1991 Pacific Classic at Del Mar, a $1-million race that Mabee had just installed at his own track. Best Pal finished second to Strike the Gold in the 1991 Kentucky Derby and ran fifth in the Preakness.

John and Betty Mabee grew up six miles apart on opposite sides of the Iowa-Missouri state line, but they didn't meet until high school and married two years after graduation. Mabee became an apprentice carpenter and later was a construction foreman in Henderson, Nev.

In 1943, when their son Larry--their only child--was 3 months old, they piled into the family car and moved to San Diego. Mabee first worked as a carpenter knocking out casting forms for ocean-towed concrete barges.

Later, he bought a mom-and-pop grocery store for $2,000. By the 1950s, he had launched the Big Bear chain, which grew to about 30 stores. He sold it in 1991.

In 1984, he bought the Golden Eagle insurance license for $2.8 million. The company's premiums reached $700 million by the mid-1990s, but the California Department of Insurance, concerned that $69 million in unsecured loans was owed to Mabee, seized Golden Eagle in January 1997 and began seeking buyers.

All the while, Mabee pressed on with his horse interests.

"I have a pleasant memory of every week in the horse business," he said. "We have horses running almost every day, and we have horses that win almost every week. I get enjoyment out of all the wins, even the victories that come from horses I've sold. Day in and day out, you can't beat it."

In addition to his son and his wife of 60 years, Mabee is survived by three grandchildren. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Aseltine School for the learning disabled in San Diego.

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