09/26/2005 12:00AM

Under scrutiny, Mitchell still wins

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ARCADIA, Calif. - At last year's Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita, trainer Mike Mitchell earned both his fourth Oak Tree training title, and the scrutiny and whispers that come with winning races at a 43 percent strike rate. Those whispers might have turned to a scream this summer at Del Mar, when Mitchell had his runners subject to 24-hour surveillance after one of his horses tested for a high level of total carbon dioxide (TCO2), euphemistically referred to as a "milkshake," at Hollywood Park.

Yet while under surveillance, Mitchell kept rolling right along. He finished Del Mar tied for sixth in the standings with 12 victories, and a healthy 23 percent strike rate. He also won the Del Mar Handicap with Leprechaun Kid, whom he had claimed for $80,000 out of his previous start.

"If we would have won as many races as we did, and not won that stake, it wouldn't have meant as much," Mitchell said.

Leprechaun Kid followed a similar story arc to Star Over the Bay, last year's Del Mar Handicap winner. Both are gray, front-running former claimers who subsequently won the Del Mar Handicap for Mitchell and jockey Tyler Baze. But this past May, Star Over the Bay suffered a fatal injury in a race in Singapore. The victory by Leprechaun Kid brought forth a wellspring of emotion.

"It hurts to talk about him," Mitchell said of Star Over the Bay. "If we could have brought him home and retired him, I would have felt great."

Mitchell heads into the fall seeking his fifth Oak Tree title. In addition to last year, he also led the Oak Tree standings in 1983 and 1996, and tied for the top spot in 1995. Since 1979, he has finished in the top five 11 times.

This past summer was bittersweet, Mitchell said. While gratified with his win total, Mitchell said he believes that had he faltered during the month of August, while under surveillance, he would have been pilloried. By contrast, he believes his success during Del Mar should be instructive.

"I was under surveillance and I had one of my best seasons," he said. "I drop horses and run them where they can win. A lot of people who don't win races hold onto their horses. We run them where they can win. That's why we're successful. A lot of trainers might choose to hold onto a horse and protect them."

Mitchell argues that the most likely reason trainers who are under surveillance see their horses lose form is because they usually must relocate to a detention barn.

"When they have to go to a detention barn the night before, they don't sleep good, they don't eat good. They run their race before they get to the race," Mitchell said in a recent interview. "When these horses stayed in my barn, with surveillance, they did well, which proves that the reason they run bad is because they go to a detention barn, not because you're under surveillance."

Don't look for the policy to change anytime soon. Logistics at Del Mar prevented horses from going to a detention barn, but at tracks where stabling is not so finite, a detention barn will be used, according to Ingrid Fermin, the executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, which as of Oak Tree has taken over TCO2 testing from the racetracks.

"The most successful situation, looking back - and I can only go by what the associations [racetracks] told me, since they were doing the testing for TCO2 - is that going to a detention barn is the most consistent," Fermin said. "I'm just speaking from a gut feeling."

"If Ingrid wants to sleep in one of my stalls, she can do it," Mitchell said. "You kind of feel like a criminal the way things are happening. It kind of feels like harassment. You're being singled out because you're winning. They do all these things and the testing, and at the end of the meet Jeff Mullins is still at 30 percent, I'm winning, Doug O'Neill. It's business as usual. Maybe it's because we know how to win races. The hundreds of thousands of dollars they've spent poking needles in horses' veins, and what's changed?

"Look at all the money they are putting into it," Mitchell said of testing and surveillance. "I commend that they stopped the tubing of horses before they go over, but now they're overdoing it. In Florida, they randomly test all the horses in one race. That's enough to make everyone follow the guidelines. Here, they're testing every horse. It's a waste of money.

"And every time you stick a needle in a horse, it's dangerous. They get tested at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. Then they get a Lasix shot five hours out. Then they're tested in the receiving barn. And if you win, they get another needle stuck in them. Four times into their neck. They can get an infection. It just doesn't seem like they care about the well-being of a horse. They're caught up in this whole milkshake idea."

Fermin said she believes the racing board needs to continue to be aggressive to assure both bettors and horsemen that there is a level playing field.

"At Del Mar, Cole Norman came up with a high TCO2," Fermin said. "The race his horse was in, all runners had their blood taken 24 hours out, and then again at the receiving barn the day of the race. There was a jump of many millimoles. We knew what the natural reading of that horse was at rest, and this was apparently considerably different. I think it is best to be more visible and active."