10/29/2013 11:17AM

Breeders’ Cup Mile: Returning to championship day with Obviously is a win for Mitchell

Shigeki Kikkawa
Mike Mitchell, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2012, returns to this year's Breeders' Cup Mile with Grade 1 winner Obviously.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The last two races turned in by Obviously, one of North America’s best turf milers the past two seasons, were subpar by his standards, providing grounds on which to wonder if Obviously is doing quite as well as he was one year ago, when he finished a gallant third in the Breeders’ Cup Mile behind Wise Dan and Animal Kingdom.

His trainer, Mike Mitchell, almost certainly is in a better place.

At Breeders’ Cup 2012, Mitchell was only about four months removed from the discovery of a large, aggressive tumor in his brain. He remained in the relatively initial stages of treatment, weakened, his future both as a trainer and, simply, a living human being, still uncertain.

The 65-year-old Mitchell, one of the most successful California-based trainers, is not totally back to his old self, which is not surprising, considering the severity of his illness. Surgery was performed to remove the tumor, and 95 percent of it was taken out, but the remainder of the growth was lodged too delicately in the brain to be safely excised, and Mitchell still is undergoing oral chemotherapy to shrink, or at least contain, it.

A few months ago, Mitchell pleaded with his doctors to strike a different balance between sufficiently treating the tumor and not giving him so much chemo that he felt beat up most of the day. The doctors agreed, Mitchell cut back on his chemo, and he quickly saw an uptick in his energy level while the tumor stayed in check. Mitchell wakes up early, heads to the track, and oversees much of the day-to-day operations in his stable, which, at 20 to 25 horses, is half the size of its peak.

“I don’t go out dancing anymore. But I feel good in the morning, which is when I do my work,” Mitchell said from Clocker’s Corner during training hours this week. “If I’m too tired to saddle in the afternoon, I have a great assistant, Phil D’Amato, who can take care of things.”

Mitchell, a hugely successful claiming trainer much of his career, has widened his scope in recent years. Obviously was purchased out of a horses of racing age sale in Newmarket, England, about this time two years ago, and he soon established himself as a stronger horse in America than he’d been during three starts in his native Ireland. But where Obviously came into the 2012 Mile on a sharp three-race win streak, he finished fourth Oct. 5 as the heavy favorite in the City of Hope Mile at Santa Anita, and even a win Aug. 25 in the Del Mar Mile failed to rise up to Obviously’s peak performance.

Mitchell shrugs off the idea that Obviously has lost a step. He points to recent blazing workouts over the hard, fast Santa Anita course, the type of turf Obviously favors. Obviously was outrun early in the City of Hope by a horse named Endorsement, who faded to finish nowhere; both Mitchell and jockey Joe Talamo think Obviously is a better horse racing on the lead, and he will be ridden accordingly Saturday.

“We’ve got him sharp. We’ve got him going good,” said Mitchell. “We’re just going to let him run his race.”

Mitchell never has won a Breeders’ Cup race, and with formidable foes – Wise Dan, for instance – entered against Obviously, it’s a streak that might stay alive.

Fortunately, so has Mitchell.