Best Pal: The People’s Horse

Best Pal earned over $5 million on the racetrack from 1990 to 1996 and was a favorite of fans in his home state of California. (Shigeki Kikkawa/BloodHorse Library)

Best Pal never stormed home to win a Triple Crown race or the Breeders’ Cup Classic, yet the hard-knocking bay gelding won the hearts of thousands of racing fans nationwide, and particularly in his native Southern California.

He was a throwback. The classy California-bred started 47 times, won 17 graded stakes on both dirt and turf, and earned in excess of $5.6 million from age 2 to 7.

Shigeki Kikkawa/BloodHorse Library

Racing in San Diegans John and Betty Mabee’s maroon and gold silks for seven years, Best Pal devastated his opposition, winning with a powerful, sweeping move on the turn. He was sound enough to capture all four major California main track races at a mile and a quarter – the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, Charles H. Strub Stakes, and Pacific Classic – over the span of three seasons.

The husky gelding won races for five jockeys (Kent Desormeaux, Corey Black, Chris McCarron, Jose Santos, and Pat Valenzuela) and three trainers (Richard Mandella, Gary Jones, and Ian Jory). He helped bring California’s breeding industry to the forefront and stamped the Pacific Classic as a major event on the summer racing calendar.

“He was the epitome of a freak – out of nothing, by nothing, and he ran a hole in the wind,” said Desormeaux, who rode him 10 times. “He was one of the most honest horses I ever rode and one of my favorite all-time horses. He’d be tired around the turn, switch leads and find a whole new gear – unbelievable. His heart was as big as the racetrack.”

Foaled on Feb. 12, 1988, at Golden Eagle Farm, Best Pal was by Habitony — winner of the 1977 Santa Anita Derby — out of the King Pellinore mare Ubetshedid. Going back another generation, there are the names of Gallant Man and Round Table in his genealogy.

"It's a nice family," noted Mabee, formerly chairman of the board at Del Mar racetrack and one of the forces behind the creation of the Pacific Classic.

"But let's face it, this is one of those things that happens in breeding once in a while. I claimed Best Pal's grandmother, Ubetido, out of a race at Del Mar. Her daughter, Ubetshedid, was not a great producer. When it comes to breeding, Best Pal fits in there with the John Henrys of the world.”

A titan in California racing, John Mabee bred more than 150 stakes winners. His straightforward demeanor and natural instincts enabled Mabee to transform an undeveloped plot of land in Ramona, Calif. in 1973 to Golden Eagle Farm, a 568-acre operation that led the Golden State’s breeding list six times and earned three Eclipse Awards (1991, 1997, and 1998) as the nation's outstanding breeder.

Best Pal quickly became a poster boy for the term precocious colt. A robust bay, Best Pal was a handful, lively and headstrong, and was gelded early.

Ian Jory saddled the colt in his debut in the Del Mar Futurity, a 5-furlong maiden race at Hollywood Park on May 18, 1990, where he won by a half-length in the quick time of :57 3/5. He followed with victories in five more stakes races. Two of those triumphs, the Norfolk at Santa Anita Park and the Hollywood Futurity, were among Best Pal’s six career Grade 1 victories. He went off as the even-money favorite in the Futurity, and jockey Jose Santos settled Best Pal well off the pace against five opponents before unleashing his patented far turn move, snatching the lead with a furlong to run and winning by a length.

The win earned Best Pal the status as the youngest millionaire in California racing history with a bankroll of $1,026,195, a record for a California-bred. He was the fifth 2-year old to be California-bred horse of the year.

“As a 2-year-old, I was saying that I'd be surprised if he didn't break the all-time money record," Jory noted. "He was a gelding, so you knew he wasn't going to be sent to stud after a couple of years. He was sound, and he had a great temperament. And he was winning almost all the time."

Best Pal lost the Eclipse Award vote as champion 2-year-old to Fly So Free, who defeated him in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park. The following spring after he placed in the Santa Anita Derby, Best Pal was the leading West Coast contender for the Kentucky Derby, where he was runner-up to Strike the Gold by 1 ¾ lengths. After a fifth in the Preakness and a second in the Silver Screen Handicap at Hollywood, Best Pal was moved to Gary Jones’ barn.

Best Pal bounced back to win the Swaps Stakes, the biggest 3-year-old race of the Hollywood Park summer meet. Then, while the other top members of the 3-year old division were still facing each other, Best Pal stepped up to beat a field of older horses charging five wide on the turn to win by a length in the inaugural running of the $1 million Pacific Classic at 1 ¼ miles in August 1991.

Best Pal whipped the winners of the 1990 Kentucky Derby (Unbridled), the Santa Anita Handicap (Farma Way), the reigning grass champion (Itsallgreektome) and the horses who later won the Jockey Club Gold Cup (Festin) and finished second in the Breeders' Cup Classic (Twilight Agenda). He ended his 3-year-old season by finishing second on the grass at level weights to Fly Till Dawn, one of the nation's best older turf runners. Still, he didn’t win the 3-year-old male Eclipse Award.

Shigeki Kikkawa/BloodHorse Library

“He was a good, tough, hard-nosed competitor who knew what he had to do," said trainer Jones. "Whenever he got beat, it had more to do with what you hadn't done to get him ready."

As a 4-year-old, Best Pal stamped himself as the leader of the older male division by winning the San Fernando, Strub, Santa Anita Handicap, and Oaklawn Handicap in succession. He suffered a fractured splint bone finishing fourth in the Pimlico Special and was sidelined for the rest of the year, but still finished second to A.P. Indy in Horse of the Year balloting. At the close of 1992, Best Pal had won 12 of his 23 career starts.

The bay gelding came back from the leg injury to beat Bertrando in the Hollywood Gold Cup at age 5, and won the Cal Cup Classic. Sent to Richard Mandella at age 6, Best Pal won the Native Dancer and Answer Do Stakes and was second in the Pacific Classic and Kentucky Cup Classic. At age 7, Best Pal won the San Antonio and Skywalker Stakes. He was also runner-up in the Santa Anita Handicap and the California Cup Classic.

The Mabees’ goal was for Best Pal was to pass Alysheba and John Henry, another indefatigable gelding, on the all-time money list. In his only start at age 8, Best Pal finished next to last, beaten by more than 13 lengths, in the San Pasqual Handicap at Santa Anita. He subsequently was retired.

Over his stellar career the “people’s horse” got bushels of fan mail. One fan had a personalized license plate made up saying "Bes Pal." His fan base often impacted attendance on the biggest days of the year.  His career bankroll of $5,668,245 stamped him the highest earning California-bred until Tiznow came along.

Best Pal retired to a life of leisure at Golden Eagle Farm where he was born and raised. But he soon grew tired of easy days in the pasture and wound up a lead pony for young horses training on the farm. On Nov. 24, 1998, Best Pal was leading yearlings and 2-year-olds to their daily exercise at the training track at the farm. While being ridden and after a light jog, the horse suddenly stumbled, dropped to his knees, rolled over and never got up. He was gone at age 10 of an apparent heart attack. More than 300 people attended a memorial service for him.

He was buried on the farm under a 600-year old oak tree with a huge boulder mounted over the grave with an engraved bronze plaque simply reading: Best Pal 1988-1998.  A fitting tribute for the blue-collar horse who touched so many hearts in the Golden State.

Note: This story was originally published in January 2014 and has been updated.

Fun Facts

  • Best Pal won three $1 million races in the early 1990s, a record that he shared at the time only with the great Alysheba.
  • He triumphed in 17 stakes among his 18 career victories and placed in six other stakes.
  • In retirement, he was honored at Del Mar Racetrack where he led the post parade for the Pacific Classic from 1996 to 1998. His fans cheered wildly.
  • At his "home" track of Del Mar, one of the 2-year-old stakes he won there in 1990 – the Balboa – was renamed in his honor in 1996.
  • A popular pub just off the paddock area at Del Mar was renamed for him and is filled with photos, records, and paraphernalia from his career.
  • He was so popular that a children’s book was written about his story.
  • Best Pal was inducted in the Racing Hall of Fame in 2010.

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