Thoroughbred trainer Mike Mitchell, who was a fixture on the Southern California horse racing scene for 40 years and held the trainer record for most wins at Del Mar racetrack, died Tuesday at home in Monrovia. He was 66.
The cause was brain cancer, said his wife, Denise Mitchell. Mike Mitchell was diagnosed with the disease in 2012 and retired due to the illness last year.
He was known as a savvy, tough competitor but not overbearing with jockeys and others he worked with.
"He would trust you, and that gave you confidence," Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. said Wednesday. "Other trainers would give you all kinds of instructions. Not Mike. He would put me on a horse, say 'Good luck' and that was it.
"I loved riding for him."
Besides holding the record at Del Mar, where his horses won 476 races, he retired as the fifth all-time leading trainer at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia with 659 wins.
He won 21 overall training titles at Southern California tracks.
But for all his wins, Mitchell was known especially for his expertise at claiming races. At these events, a buying price is set that applies to all the horses taking part. Before the race begins, a person who wants to buy one of the horses puts in a claim, and then no matter how well the horse does during the race, the buyer pays the money and becomes the new owner.
It's a heady game that can result in a buyer getting a winning horse at a bargain price or being stuck with one that will underperform. "Mike was the ultimate poker player when it came to claiming races," said Mike Willman, spokesman for Santa Anita Park. "He was very adept at spotting a horse he thought had a lot of upside."
He spotted some for horse owner Jack Disney. "The best horse we've ever claimed I didn't like at all," Disney said in a 2012 Times interview, "and [Mitchell] convinced me, and the horse earned $590,000."
Veteran jockey agent Scotty McClellan said in a statement that Mitchell "did phenomenal with his claims over the years." But he added that, "as competitive as he was, Mike loved to laugh. He just loved to laugh and hear new jokes, and play practical jokes. He was a great trainer and a great person as well."
Mitchell was born April 25, 1948, in Bakersfield. His father, Earl, was a trainer.
Mitchell attended Arcadia High School but left before graduating to start his career. He won his first race as a trainer in 1974 at Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo, Calif.
After brain surgery in 2012, Mitchell returned to the Santa Anita track when he was able, resuming his nearly lifelong habit of waking up at 4 a.m. to make his way to the horse barn.
"I love the excitement," he told The Times that year. "I love training horses."
In addition to his wife, Mitchell is survived by daughters McCall Rounsefell and Shea Leparoux; sister Cheryl Mitchell; and brothers Earl Jr., Guy and Casey Mitchell.