12/29/2005 1:00AM

Consider yourself lucky if you knew Mitchell

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ARCADIA, Calif. - You meet all kinds of people at the racetrack. Some are rational, others are less so.

If you are lucky, you meet a horseplayer who is enthusiastic and intelligent, someone willing to share ideas and swap strategies. He would be passionate, logical, and eager to teach. The person would be an obvious winner, and when you find him, he would become one of the most unforgettable persons you have met at the racetrack.

Twenty years ago, I got lucky. I met that person for lunch in the Santa Anita clubhouse. It was Jan. 4, 1986, and we both wagered against the improving 3-year-old Ferdinand, odds-on to win the Los Feliz Stakes. At first, it seemed like an insignificant afternoon. After all, it was only January. Can anything special possibly happen? It can.

When I met Dick Mitchell for lunch that day, he was smiling and laughing. He never stopped. For five hours and nine races, the upbeat horseplayer outlined his confident views on handicapping, and life. I listened, while believing it was possible to succeed at both. Mitchell started the handicapping conversation with basic advice.

"To win at the racetrack, you need three things," Mitchell said. He spoke excitedly, as if he were revealing a secret. "One, is you have to have your head screwed on right - you have to be able to listen to your own opinions fundamentally. And then, you need good selection skills - how to select horses. And you need good money management skills."

The words are as true today as 20 years ago. Back then, Mitchell was new to winning. The handicapping-products company he founded, Cynthia Publishing, was only 2 years old. I was a rookie on the sports staff at the Pasadena Star-News; Mitchell was trying to drum up business for Cynthia. Everything was fresh.

It stayed that way. Over the next two decades, Mitchell emerged as one of the game's most innovative handicappers, authoring a series of books that included the 1989 classic "Winning Thoroughbred Strategies." His contributions to betting strategy and money management, his motivational personality, and his zeal for life and horse racing stayed true.

Dick Mitchell died Nov. 27 in Yuma, Ariz., after a struggle with cancer. He was 66. It is sad when a friend passes away, and a time to reflect.

"Most people consider him a handicapping teacher - he was more that that," one of his longtime friends, Kitts Anderson, said. "He wanted you to be a better person, not just a better horseplayer."

Mitchell was both. The first day I met him, Mitchell used modern terms such as early pace, sustained pace, and average pace. He talked about betting strategy and the Kelly Criterion, and why it is so much tougher to win with real money than to win on paper.

"Most people, if they sit at home and handicap, they can win," Mitchell said. "They get to the racetrack, and it's a circus."

It was spoken like someone who had battled in the parimutuel trenches, which he had. "I spent most of the 70's losing," he said. "I just couldn't figure how to win. I never met a winning player until 1980. I didn't know what one looked like."

It was renowned handicapping author Mark Cramer who became Mitchell's mentor, and while Mitchell eventually settled on pace as the factor that could be most seriously exploited, he was always in tune to "Cramer subtleties."

Mitchell would have loved opening day of the 2005-06 winter meet. On an afternoon everything went out of kilter, he would have been among the first to recognize the profile.

The speed bias was blatant, and right up Mitchell's alley. "You're always looking for unusual," Mitchell said in 1986. It was a Cramer-influenced remark, but the twinkle in his eye and the confident grin on his face was pure Mitchell. He never stopped smiling, and never stopped challenging his fellow players.

If you use grass figures to handicap a dirt race, "I will track you down and burn your house down," he said more than once.

Mitchell had one of those enthusiastically optimistic voices that made you want to hear what he had to say, and spoke with such passion that his words sometimes nearly tripped on each other. He always gave credit to other experts, and recommended James Quinn's primer on class handicapping, "The Handicapper's Condition Book."

"I use it for elimination, not for selection," Mitchell said in 1986, then added rapid-fire, "but-you-can-use-it-for-selection-and-make-money-you-really-can."

You cannot help smiling while listening to Mitchell on tape. "It's a decision game, not a selection game," he said frequently. "Winners aren't the ones that can select horses the best, winners are the ones that can find the appropriate value for their selections."

Mitchell's published works included "Myths That Destroy a Horseplayer's Bankroll," "Commonsense Handicapping," and "Commonsense Betting." Mitchell co-designed the popular pace-based software program All-in-One, and often talked about the synergy between finding horses, and finding bets.

"Handicapping is one skill, money management is another skill, and you need them both," he explained. "Which is more important - the body, or the soul? You can't separate them. They're integrated. You really can't have one without the other.

"The good news is you learn money management once, and it's going to be true 100 years from now. That's not so for handicapping. Handicapping is dynamic. It moves around. It flips all over the place. To demand precision in handicapping is like trying to nail jelly to a tree."

Mitchell was amusing to watch in action, particularly when he resigned himself to taking a stand against the best horse in a race, such as the 1986 Los Feliz.

"I'm going to have to bet against Ferdinand in the feature, and go with this Currency Control," Mitchell stated matter-of-factly.

The decision was mandated by the odds.

But it was Badger Land who won by a head over Ferdinand. Currency Control finished off the board. No matter. Wagering losses aside, Jan. 4, 1986, was a good day. I found a winner.

You meet all kinds of people at the racetrack. And if you are lucky, you meet someone unforgettable, someone like Dick Mitchell.