11/15/2004 12:00AM

Mullins, Mitchell say they intend to race in Florida

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Jeff Mullins has eyes for Florida.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A paucity of quality horses available to be claimed in California, the stagnant purses in this state, and the likelihood of slots-fueled purses coming soon to Florida has caused two of California's leading trainers, Mike Mitchell and Jeff Mullins, to say they will open divisions in south Florida this winter.

Mitchell said he was going to visit Florida this week and meet with Bob Umphrey, the racing secretary at Calder, and Dave Bailey, the racing secretary at Gulfstream, in hopes of acquiring stalls this winter.

The move by both trainers - who have large barns and run many horses during the course of a meet - is another blow to a tenuous situation in California, where a ballot initiative that could have brought slots to local racetracks was soundly defeated earlier this month on the same day Florida passed slots legislation.

Mitchell, 56, is a California native and has won a total of 15 training titles at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita.

"I don't know where California is going," Mitchell said at Hollywood Park on Sunday. "No one seems to want to help the business. It's a tough place to live right now. The slot machines passing in Florida is what kicked it off for me. I've always wanted to claim in Florida. You can't find horses here anymore. There are small fields and bad horses. You're just claiming someone else's problem. It used to be there were two or three horses in every race that you could choose from. Now, there's maybe one that stands out, and everyone shakes for it. My owners want to buy, but we can't find anything.

"I'll be leaving my best crew here, and leaving good horses, here, too. I'll just go back and forth. But I'm not going to be claiming in Florida to bring those horses back to California. I'm going to start a Florida division. The surface that they're putting in at Gulfstream sounds great, like the one they have at Palm Meadows. I'm going to go down there and check it all out on Wednesday."

Mullins, 41, won training titles this year at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. He has won the last two runnings of the Santa Anita Derby, with Buddy Gil and Castledale. He was in Florida last week finalizing the private purchase of several runners. But he also looked into opening a division there.

"I'm going to take quite a few there," Mullins said. "I'll have stalls either at Palm Meadows or Calder."