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Emerald Downs notes: Mitchell puts brakes on comeback
By Nick Rousso
AUBURN, Wash. – After medics restarted his heart, and surgeons implanted stents to save his life, Gallyn Mitchell wasted very little time trying to reinvigorate his riding career. Emerald Downs’s all-time leading rider was back on horses last week, galloping runners in the morning, and then climbed aboard the 3-year-old colt Forin Sea on Saturday afternoon and guided him to a third-place finish in an allowance race.
But after he fell ill early this week, Mitchell, 50, and his doctors agreed that his comeback should be placed on hold. Mitchell said Friday that he expects to miss the remainder of the 75-day meeting, which concludes Sept. 29. His ride aboard Forin Sea was exhilarating, but for Mitchell, just two months after he suffered a massive heart attack at his home near Emerald Downs, it was too much too soon.
“I’m feeling pretty good overall,” Mitchell said Friday. “But I saw the doctor and he suggested maybe I hurried it a little bit, so I’m going to hold off for a while and take off my horses this year. He wants to wait until I get off my blood thinner, and that’s going to be three or four months. They told me the other day, ‘If you hit the ground, because your blood is so thin, you could bleed to death.’”
This latest news extends a recent run of poor luck for Mitchell, who suffered a broken hand in a starting gate mishap last August, followed by a back injury and broken ankle in a spill at Turf Paradise in February. Mitchell and his wife, Denise, who is also his agent, returned in time to take mounts during the opening weekend at Emerald. Mitchell was stricken the next day; he was lazing on his living-room couch when his world went askew.
“I knew it was a heart attack,” he said. “Denise was making me a bacon sandwich, I’m sitting on the couch, and I’m getting short of breath. I thought, ‘Go outside and get some fresh air,’ and then it hit me dead-center in the chest, and in the back in the same spot. I could feel my hands tingling, and I was sweating fiercely. I went outside, I was laying on my front porch, trying to take breaths, and each one got shorter. It tightened up like a vice. I got back through the front door and hollered, ‘I’m having a heart attack!’”
Mitchell is happy to recount how medics arrived in 6 minutes and 43 seconds after Denise Mitchell’s 911 call, and how those medics determined that he was having a massive heart attack. “That’s when my wife lost it,” Mitchell said. “The next thing I know, we’re in an ambulance.”
Surgeons installed two stents to clear blockages near Mitchell’s heart. Two months of rest and rehabilitation followed, and then came the surprising word from doctors that Mitchell could get back on horses. He was cleared June 19 and returned to his morning workout routine the following day. Mitchell did not solicit race mounts last week, though, and was on his way to a doctor’s appointment Saturday when trainer Doris Harwood called and offered up Forin Sea at the last minute.
“They put me through two stress tests, just to make sure, and everything else was up to date,” Mitchell said of the doctors who cleared him to ride. “And then I came back and rode that horse. It wasn’t my plan, but I felt really good. Rocco Bowen got hurt in like the second race, and Doris called. She asked how fit I was, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve been a couch potato for two months, and been on horses for three days, so you can probably guess how fit I am.”
Forin Sea broke behind the field and fought with Mitchell in the early going before catching stride and finishing strongly through the stretch. It likely will be Mitchell’s first and only ride of the summer. But there is large consolation in knowing that the worst is over, and that Mitchell had a heart attack and weathered the storm.
“Overall, I could say it was miracle,” he said. “They told my wife I shouldn’t be here. There could have been brain damage, anything, and heck, I was riding in two months. You could say I pushed it, but I think any other rider in that position would have done the same thing. It’s in the blood, though I’m learning to deal with that now.”
Denise Mitchell said she would like her husband to ease off the accelerator for a while. She was taken aback last week when Mitchell returned to the saddle far in advance of previous expectations.
“Of course he was all excited, and I went totally opposite,” she said. “Two months ago, he was a dead man. I had accepted that he was done for a while. So I had mixed emotions. I wish he’d take more time. He is who he is, but he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone around here; that’s how I feel.”
Emerald Downs hosted a fundraiser for the Mitchells on June 15 to help with his spiraling medical bills. Close to $25,000 was raised.
“The support and the donations, the wonderful things that people did for us, it was huge,” Denise Mitchell said. “It was another emotional thing. I wish the past 11 months hadn’t been such a rollercoaster. He’s rode two months out of 11, he broke his thumb, we got back up, and then the heart attack. I told him, ‘If you need more time…’ ”
With idle weeks ahead, Mitchell will have all the time he needs. He said the ‘R’ word – retirement – has slipped into his thoughts. Even before the heart attack, Mitchell was thinking about a future after riding.
“I have thought about it,” he said. “I’m at the tail end of my career. I plan to go back to riding, but let’s say it doesn’t work out – I’ve got to say I’m ready for it. I understand that. But I’m good now, I’ve got a few new spark plugs, and I think I can go for a while more. We’ll go back to Phoenix, take it little by little, and then go from there.”
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