About a year ago at this time, trainer Mike Mitchell was down to three horses. He had debts, a young family that needed his support and was having his middle-age crisis a little early. Mitchell was 43 and didn't know what he would do with the rest of his life.
"Who were they? Those three horses must have been so bad that I can't remember who they were," Mitchell said.
Today, as Santa Anita opens its 56th season, Mitchell will be saddling a couple of geldings whom he bought out of the claiming ranks this fall. Both Safe To Say and Viva El Capitan have good chances to win, which would be nothing unusual since Mitchell is coming off a Hollywood Park meeting during which he won 11 races, more than 40% of his starts.
At the meet before Hollywood's, Oak Tree at Santa Anita, Mitchell won nine times, tying him for third in the standings, and his victory rate was 41%.
"People might look at me now and say that Mitchell's on Easy Street again," Mitchell said. "I've got a lot of bad years to make up for."
Mitchell has won 341 races at Hollywood Park, which ranks him 11th on the list, and he's 16th at Santa Anita with 261.
Most of those winners came in the early 1980s, when he was winning seasonal titles at Hollywood Park and Del Mar, and finishing high in the standings at Santa Anita.
Toward the end of the decade, Mitchell's owners were leaving the game. He didn't have much luck replacing them and his business soured. In the late 1980s, his stable had years with fewer than 40 winners. Mitchell used to win that many between the short meets at Del Mar in the summer and at Santa Anita in the fall.
Now Mitchell has 18 horses, having seen a few of his Hollywood Park winners claimed by other trainers, and his Santa Anita season could be a sequel to other recent success.
Besides the stock he already has been running, Mitchell is looking forward to the racing debuts of a couple of well-bred colts, by Clever Trick and Ogygian, whom he bought at auction in Florida.
Two things--one that didn't happen and one that did--appear to be responsible for the resurgence of the Mitchell barn. Early this year, with the bills piling up, he thought about becoming a jockey agent but was unable to make a deal with any established riders. A couple of months later, on Easter, Mitchell was baptized, in a service that included Raider center Don Mosebar.
"I've always been a Christian," Mitchell said. "I never prayed a lot, but I think you could say that I've always been about halfway in the door. We would take the kids to church. Since my baptism, I've been looking at things differently. God can read people, and I think my prayers have mattered. Now I read the (Daily) Racing Form, and then I pray a little."
Last Friday at Hollywood Park, one of Mitchell's horses won the last race and the owner invited him to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Mitchell also ran into Dr. Robert Kerlan, the jockeys' physician at Hollywood, who wanted to give him two tickets on the floor at that night's Laker game.
"I couldn't do any of those things," Mitchell said. "Friday's the night we go to church. We have a lot of fun there."
If Corey Nakatani had hired Mitchell, the trainer probably would be booking his mounts these days.
"Corey's going to be one of the top riders in the game, if he isn't already," Mitchell said. "He's young, aggressive and fearless. Taking his book would have been a piece of cake. For one thing, there's no workers' compensation to pay, which kills all of us trainers. It wasn't an easy way out, because jock agents have to work hard, too. But when Corey and another jock, Alex Solis, changed agents and neither one of them came to me, I knew that the life of a jock agent wasn't going to happen for me."
Mitchell's 18 horses belong to about 15 owners. "If an owner comes to you and says he's making a lot of money in this game, he's lying," Mitchell said. "The tax incentives aren't there anymore. The only way for most people to get into racing now is through partnerships, and my clients are involved in several of those."
Two of Mitchell's clients, the father-son combination of David and Steve Ustin, are carryovers from the old days. Another mainstay is Gary Burke, who has had Viva El Capitan since Mitchell claimed the 3-year-old from trainer Bob Baffert at Del Mar for $25,000 in September. Since then, the sprinter has won three of four starts.
"Gary is as game as (Dick) Tracy," Mitchell said. "He's opinionated, but there's never a problem when it comes to where we ought to run his horses."
When Viva El Captain won at Hollywood on Dec. 6, he was the centerpiece for a three-winner day by Mitchell. The other two were claimed by rival trainers, which goes with the territory.
"It's nice to have a day like that, but my goal is consistency," Mitchell said. "My horses usually aren't that strong this time of the year.
"It might have something to do with owners backing off because of Christmas and year-end taxes being due. This will be the first time in years that I'm going into Santa Anita with a fair amount of money to claim horses."
The jockey for both of Mitchell's horses today is Corey Nakatani. The trainer couldn't work for the jockey, so now he's putting him to work.
Horse Racing Notes
Post time today is noon. The first race will be run at 12:30 p.m. until Feb. 17, when it goes to 1 p.m. . . . The 85-day meet runs through April 18. . . . Last season, the leaders were jockey Alex Solis (100 winners), trainer Gary Jones (41) and owners Betty and John Mabee (16 winners and $1.6 million in purses). Jones' total, which included 12 stakes, represented the most winners by a Santa Anita trainer since Bobby Frankel had 45 in 1981. . . . Favorites won 32% of the races at the previous meet.