Remembering Betty Mabee - By Morton Cathro

(Originally published in the February 27, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

What’s in a name?...That is the question Betty Mabee must have asked herself when, back at the beginning, she assumed the pleasantly daunting task of naming newborn foals and yearlings at newly “born” Golden Eagle Farm.

While husband John plunged into pedigrees and plotted matings that would propel Golden Eagle to dizzying heights as one of the most formidable, successful breeding and racing operations in California history, Betty questioned the doomed heroine’s protestation—voiced in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—that one’s name is but an artificial, meaningless convention.

When it came to horses, Betty Mabee thought otherwise. She believed a Thoroughbred should bear a name commensurate with its stature as one of God’s noblest creatures.

Garden of Roses...Beautiful Gem...Evening Starlight...Golden Sunrise...Magical Allure...Grand and Glorious: These and countless other lovely names—Heart of Joy especially comes to mind—evoked Betty’s reverence for the Thoroughbred, a reverence and respect that dwelt in her own joyous heart.

No frivolous names. No 18-letter tongue-twisters. No suggestive or off-color names designed to slip by The Jockey Club undetected when submitted for official approval.

Along with respect for the racehorse, the names Betty Mabee chose reflected the love and respect she held for her country: Avenue of Flags...Sea to Shining Sea...American Day...Commander’s Flag...Precious Peace...Early Pioneer...Firm and Fair.

My wife, Jean, and I were privileged to be frequent guests of the Mabees at Del Mar during their dream-like golden decade of the ’90s—a decade in which they won three Eclipse Awards as owners/breeders of Thoroughbreds that swept to victory in many a prestigious race.

I was a guest, not as a journalist but as a racing fan, introduced by a long-time horsewoman and mutual friend, the late Mary Jane Gallaher-Kissling of Lexington. Never during those weekends at the track, those happy gatherings in the winner’s circle, those visits to the farm, the dinners and social gatherings, did the Mabees ever seek to compromise the integrity of our growing friendship.

They, in fact, shunned personal publicity and allowed their horses to make headlines: The famous Best Pal, “the people’s horse”; General Challenge; Dramatic Gold; Jeanne Jones; Notable Career; Excellent Meeting; Yearly Report; the ill-fated Event of the Year—Golden Eagle’s long list of stakes winners, many of them million-dollar earners, said all that needed saying.

Betty Mabee also shunned the spotlight while quietly living her “other” life, far removed from the luxury boxes and Directors’ Room at Del Mar. She was so modest about her work with the underprivileged and downtrodden that only after several annual visits were we to learn fully the scope of her compassion, commitment, and generosity.

Those virtues she extended to all creatures, great and small: Among her many charities was her favorite, Heifer International. Since 1944 this global organization has helped millions of impoverished rural families in some 130 countries by providing food- and income-producing farm animals, whose offspring in turn are passed along to others in need.

Betty was generous, too, in her correspondence with us. Her handwriting flowed gracefully across the page, like a Thoroughbred breezing effortlessly during morning exercise. Our file folder bulges with her artistic cards and letters—and with copies of those lists of names she submitted to The Jockey Club.

Soft-spoken and dignified, Betty Mabee was stoic in the face of adversity. Yet when a neighboring farm was devastated by fire, and she helped rescue and stable the equine survivors, she broke down and wept as she described the tragedy to us.

Our souvenir cabinet of racing mementoes holds programs, photographs, and other fading evidence of adventures experienced in a lifetime of following the Sport of Kings. Occupying a special place therein is a picture taken in the Bay Meadows winner’s circle in 1994 as Jean and I presented a trophy to the winning connections of the Golden Eagle Farm Handicap, a race named to recognize the farm’s importance to the sport.

That photo is a treasured souvenir, indeed—and a nostalgic reminder of those golden moments we shared with the beloved "First Lady of California Racing." 

A retired California newspaperman, Morton Cathro has written for The Blood-Horse, Daily Racing Form, and California Thoroughbred.

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