04/17/2015 12:48PM

Fornatale: Mitchell’s knowledge, experience inspired one horseplayer

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Mike Mitchell, who died Tuesday at age 66, was one of the most accomplished trainers in horse-racing history, and he also had a connection to the handicapping-contest world. When John Doyle won $500,000 at the 2011 National Handicapping Championship, he thanked the horse who helped him, Dapper Gene, and the man who conditioned him, Mitchell. Doyle selected Dapper Gene largely because of Mitchell’s proficiency with moving horses up off the claim.

“I have to buy that guy a drink the next time I see him,” Doyle said at the time.

Doyle made good on his promise, sending a bottle of wine to Mitchell shortly thereafter, and a friendship began. Doyle attended the 2011 meet at Del Mar and ended up spending most of his mornings around the Mitchell barn that summer. “I got an education about racing,” Doyle said. “I didn’t come from a horseman background, and it was a great experience for me to be in a top-flight barn. It helped me in my handicapping.”

The biggest thing Doyle learned in the Mitchell barn was to try to think like a trainer, especially when it came to examining where they spot their horses. “Mike always put horses in the right spots, where they could win,” Doyle said. “His owners didn’t always like it, but that’s why he’s the all-time leading trainer at Del Mar and why he won 20 training titles.”

Doyle said that despite all his success, Mitchell was still underrated, especially as a turf trainer. “He had some great horses,” Doyle said. “[His multiple Grade 1-winning miler] Obviously, the speedster, comes to mind, and also Egg Drop. I was there when she made her debut, and she was a disappointment on synthetics and dirt, and [Mitchell] completely revamped her career on grass. He could pretty much do anything.”

As for Mitchell’s reputation for being able to claim horses and move them up dramatically, Doyle cited Bum Phillips’s famous line about Bear Bryant: “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”

As impressed as Doyle was by Mitchell the horseman, he was more impressed by Mitchell the man. “He was an incredible human being, very spiritual,” Doyle said. “You take a look at his family, and they’re the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They don’t have an unkind word for anyone. He was just a positive person to be around, and I think that led to a lot of his success.”

Business and family life merged at times for Mitchell. “His son-in-law helped pick out St Trinians,” Doyle said, referring to the filly who gave Zenyatta all she could handle in the 2010 Vanity Stakes. “They brought her in from Europe, and she was all crooked, but she was tough as nails, and Mike got the most out of her. I don’t know if anybody else could have done that.”

Doyle characterized Mitchell as a friend of the horseplayer. “He was very supportive of me,” Doyle said. “He would ask my opinion on things. He wasn’t an egomaniac. He was open to ideas and suggestions from people he thought had good opinions.”

And he also had a sense of humor. After Doyle’s speech in 2012 at the Eclipse Awards dinner, where he was named Handicapper of the Year for his NHC triumph, Mitchell was the first guy to call him. “He told me I did a great job,” Doyle said. “Then he asked, ‘Why didn’t you talk about me?’ ”

Doyle worked in the corporate world for a long time and attended many leadership conferences. One of the lessons he learned was that you need to have a passion for whatever business you’re in.

“I used to go to the backside at Del Mar at 5:30 in the morning, and he’d be there every day for the whole session,” Doyle said. “That tells me he loved what he did. If you can get that in life, you’re way ahead of the game.”