A SIX-TIME LEADER AT SANTA ANITA & OAK TREE, MITCHELL WON 21 SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TRAINING TITLES & SADDLED A TOTAL OF 20 OVERALL STAKES WINNERS AT THE GREAT RACE PLACE
ARCADIA, Calif. (Apr. 15, 2015)–Trainer Mike Mitchell, an iconic and dominant figure on the Southern California racing landscape for nearly 40 years, passed away Tuesday, at his home in Monrovia following a lengthy battle with brain cancer at age 66.
Born April 25, 1948 in Bakersfield and the son of a trainer, Earl Mitchell, Mike Mitchell worked for legendary trainers Farrell Jones and Willard Proctor prior to taking out his first trainer’s license in 1974. Married in 1982 to the former Denise Weaver, Mitchell is survived by his wife and their two daughters, McCall (Rounsefell) and Shea (Leparoux).
Known primarily as a wizard at the claim box, Mitchell had a finely tuned ability to analyze the way races would be run and the ability to communicate pertinent pre-race information to those in his employ.
“The thing about Mike that I loved about him, was he had so much faith in himself, so much confidence,” said retired Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr. “He was one of my biggest supporters and we had a lot of success together. He knew his horses and every time he told me a horse was doing well, they ran that way. When I rode for Mike, he never gave me instructions and when I rode for him, I had a lot of confidence. He was a great trainer with claiming horses and with stakes horses. He was one of the best I ever rode for.”
Santa Anita’s leading Winter Meet trainer in 1992-93, and again in 2007-08, he handed his stable over to his longtime assistant, Phil D’Amato on April 21, 2014 and retired due to his illness as Santa Anita’s fifth all-time leading trainer with 659 wins, behind only Bobby Frankel, Charlie Whittingham, Bob Baffert and Ron McAnally.
Mitchell’s first Santa Anita stakes winner was Johnny’s Image, who won the 1978 Santa Catalina Stakes (now run as the Robert B. Lewis), and he saddled a total of 20 overall stakes winners at The Great Race Place, his final added money Santa Anita win coming with Egg Drop in the Grade II Goldikova Stakes in 2013.
“Mike was a very aggressive guy when it came to where he was placing his horses,” said veteran jockey agent, Scotty McClellan, who represented several top riders during Mitchell’s career, including Darrell McHargue, Chris McCarron, Alex Solis, Corey Nakatani and Joe Talamo. “He always ran them in live spots. There were a lot of times a horse would run good and I’d be looking for a race for $40,000 (claiming), and he’s looking for a race for 25 or 32 (thousand). He did phenomenal with his claims over the years and if he said he had a runner, believe me, it was a runner.”
McClellan also touched upon the kind of person Mitchell was.
“As competitive as he was, Mike loved to laugh,” he said. “He just loved to laugh and hear new jokes–and play practical jokes. He was a great trainer and a great person as well–One of the best I’ve ever been around.”
Mitchell, who won his first race at Bay Meadows in 1974, won 21 overall training titles in Southern California. In addition to his two Santa Anita Winter Meet titles, he won four training titles at Santa Anita’s Oak Tree Meeting; in 1983, 1995, 1996 and 2004. He also took seven overall Hollywood Park titles that included the 1982, 1985, 1993 and 1997 Spring/Summer Meets, and Hollywood Park Fall Meets in 1983, 1996 and 2011.
Del Mar’s all-time leading trainer with 476 seaside wins, Mitchell won seven Del Mar titles; 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1995, 1996 and 2011. He was also leading trainer at Fairplex Park in 2008.
“I haven’t seen too many guys that were ever better with a condition book than Mike,” said TVG’s Kurt Hoover. “He knew where to place his horses and when to run ’em. In addition to that, I’ve known several people that had great success with Mike as their trainer, but they all say that along with racing success, the fun they had with both Mike and Denise was just as important.
“On top of all of his professional achievements is the fact that he had a great family. You could see that they all genuinely enjoyed being together. He was just an all-around good man.”
Although known (and feared) as one of the top claiming trainers of all-time, Mitchell also developed a number of stakes winners, including the top sprinter Kela, who provided him with his first Grade I win, in the 2004 Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar.
His greatest stakes success came late in his career with Irish-bred Obviously, who won five graded stakes, including the Grade I Shoemaker Mile, between August, 2012 and August, 2013. Obviously also finished third for Mitchell, behind eventual Horse of the Year Wise Dan, in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita.
In addition to his wife and two daughters, Mitchell is survived by a twin sister, Cheryl, and brothers Earl, Jr., Guy and Casey. Funeral services are pending.