03/24/2004 1:00AM

Grade 1 finally within reach

Benoit & Associates
Trainer Mike Mitchell will send out Quintons Gold Rush in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 3rd.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Mike Mitchell has been training for more than 30 years and has won numerous training titles at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar. Yet in all that time, he has never won a Grade 1 stakes race, which makes the April 3 Santa Anita Derby - in which he will send out Quintons Gold Rush - more than just a Kentucky Derby prep race for Mitchell.

"It would be wonderful to run in the Kentucky Derby with a horse who has a chance, but the Santa Anita Derby is a big race for me," Mitchell said Wednesday morning. "We're not looking at it as just a prep. We want to win."

A victory in the Santa Anita Derby would be an overdue accomplishment for one of Southern California's training mainstays. Mitchell, 55, has been a force for more than 25 years, and has battled back from a fallow period in the early 1990's that almost forced him to quit training. Nearly all Mitchell's success, though, has come with claiming horses, a label Mitchell desires to shake.

Mitchell's biggest stakes victory came with Kessem Power in the 1998 San Luis Rey Stakes. Mitchell has won important 3-year-old races, like the 2001 Bay Shore Stakes with Skip to the Stone, the 1984 California Derby with Distant Ryder, and the 1978 Santa Catalina Stakes with Johnny's Image. The Santa Anita Derby, and Quintons Gold Rush, offer Mitchell his latest opportunity to shake the tag of being a claiming trainer.

"I want to get into younger horses," Mitchell said. "It's a different game. It's more expensive than claiming, but you get a chance to get a good horse like this. Most of my owners are trying to make the transition. Some want their hands in both. I don't want to quit the claiming game, but I'd like half or more of my horses to be young ones who have a chance to be a good horse."

Quintons Gold Rush has kept company with some of the best 3-year-olds on the West Coast in his brief three-race career. In his debut last December, he finished second to Preachinatthebar, who has gone on to win the San Felipe Stakes. In his second start, Quintons Gold Rush was a 3 1/2-length winner against Wimbledon, who has since captured the Louisiana Derby. Quintons Gold Rush then ran in the March 6 San Rafael Stakes, and finished fourth - behind the likes of Imperialism and Lion Heart - after racing four paths wide the whole way under Corey Nakatani.

"I thought he had a really, really rough trip in the San Rafael," Mitchell said. "There was so much speed, and Corey pointed out that Lion Heart tries to get out on the turn, and we were drawn outside of him. We planned to take back, but he ended up wide. He made a nice move on the turn."

Imperialism, Lion Heart, and Wimbledon all are scheduled to compete in the Santa Anita Derby, which is shaping up as a crucial prep race for the May 1 Kentucky Derby. Mitchell believes the 1 1/8 miles of the Santa Anita Derby will suit Quintons Gold Rush more than the mile of the San Rafael.

Mitchell's lone concern with Quintons Gold Rush, besides his inexperience, has been the colt's light frame. "He could carry more weight," Mitchell said. "He's all legs. His appetite is good now. He's not losing weight. He's maintaining it. He's going to be a big, beautiful, older horse."

Quintons Gold Rush, like Wimbledon, is a son of Wild Rush. He was purchased at a sale of 2-year-olds in training for $60,000 by Mitchell, who consults with bloodstock agent J.B. McKathan. Victor Riches originally owned the colt, then sold half to Jay Manoogian. Those two subsequently sold half the colt to Anne and Satish Sanan's Padua Stables, and Padua has since bought out Riches.

Sanan "has been a dream to work for," said Mitchell, who has since picked up some additional Padua runners.

Mitchell is currently tied for third in the trainer standings at Santa Anita. Being at or near the top of the standings has been a familiar position for him. But in January 1992, Mitchell was down to just five horses, and seriously considered becoming a jockey agent.

He stuck it out, and a year later was winning at such a high percentage - particularly with horses who improved significantly after being claimed - that Mitchell became the subject of increased scrutiny from the California Horse Racing Board. His near 40-percent strike rate was questioned in a trade publication by a writer who mocked Mitchell's religious convictions, writing: "Then one day, the Great Steward in the sky looked down upon Michael and took pity on him."

Mitchell brings up his faith almost apologetically, but earnestly. He said he prayed before looking at videos of the 2-year-olds at the sale at which he found Quintons Gold Rush. "I pray that I'll find the right horse," he said. He says he prays before he claims a horse.

One person Mitchell has never lost faith in is himself.