06/29/2008 11:00PM

He's been much more than a one-trick pony


The public is far too quick to classify someone or something. We like neatness. Each person or thing in its proper place. Horseplayers are just as guilty, prematurely categorizing a horse, jockey, trainer, or racing surface, often before all the evidence is in, or sometimes in spite of it.

For years Mike Mitchell has been labeled a "top claiming trainer." This is true, to be sure. However, it is by no means fair and does not come close to describing the talents and abilities of Mitchell as a terrific all-around horseman, something players of Southern California races the past 30 years or so have come to know all too well.

Mitchell, now 60, is from the old school, working his way up the ranks. His father, Earl Mitchell, was a trainer. The younger Mitchell cut his teeth working for top horsemen such as Farrell Jones, Ron McAnally, Loren Rettele, and Jack Van Berg. He was a groom for Willard Proctor, who gave Mitchell his first big nudge on his way. When Mitchell took out his trainer's license in 1974 it was Proctor who loaned him some stall space, four to be exact, that sent Mitchell on his way.

Mitchell carved his niche by way of the brutally tough claiming game, hence the reason he has been pigeonholed into that classification. It's an incredibly difficult way to make it. It's not enough to be a good horseman - you also have to be a terrific handicapper and evaluator of talent. Mitchell has passed those tests with flying colors.

He has captured numerous training titles on the Southern California circuit. His abilities off the claim are well known - he's a superb 29 percent first off the claim and a terrific 26 percent second off a claim.

Wonderful as he has been with claimers, his versatility is what has kept him near the top the heap out West for so long. For example, Mitchell is terribly underrated off a layoff (16 percent off a layoff of six months or more). He knows when to make changes - he's 4 for his last 18 (22 percent) first time on turf, 5 for his last 15 (33 percent) first time with blinkers, and 2 for his last 2 first time Lasix.

Again, while best known for his claiming prowess (24 percent) he has had success all over the class ladder: 28 percent with maiden claimers, 24 percent with straight maidens, 22 percent in allowance, 20 percent in stakes, and 18 percent in graded stakes. Think he wins races off the training of others when he claims a horse? Think again. He's a strong 17 percent first time out, 24 percent second time out. In other words, he knows how to get them ready.

He has merged some of these strengths of late. His best current runners like Ever a Friend, On the Acorn, and Big Booster came to him via the claiming box. The three are confirmed graded stakes runners. Mitchell has called Ever a Friend, winner of the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita and second in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park, the best horse he has ever claimed and has him on a path he hopes ends up in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita in October.

He won his first Grade 1 with the sprinter Kela (Pat O'Brien Handicap at Del Mar). Kela later finished second to champion Speightstown in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Star Over the Bay, a horse Mitchell claimed for $80,000, became a Grade 1 winner and multiple Grade 2 winner. Leprechaun Kid, another $80,000 claim, won back-to-back Grade 2 Del Mar handicaps and was Grade 1 placed. He claimed Kessem Power for $50,000 and saw him win multiple Grade 2 turf stakes at Santa Anita.

Seems the proper classification for Mitchell is "sharp."