A mainstay on the local circuit for more than 30 years, trainer Mike Mitchell has had starters in the Breeders' Cup, the Arlington Million and the Hollywood Gold Cup.
Saturday, however, the Bakersfield-born Mitchell will have his first runner in his home state's most historic race, the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap.
Texcess, a California-bred gelding who has been in Mitchell's barn slightly more than a month, is among nine entries scheduled to run 1 1/4 miles in the 69th Big 'Cap.
"It's exciting just to be in the race," said Mitchell, 57. "I've watched the Santa Anita Handicap for so many years. My owners are excited and my family is excited. The horse is so sharp right now. I'm not worried because he is doing so well. He's going into this good and he's going to get a piece of it."
When 2006 began, Texcess was still with trainer Paul Aguirre, who co-owned the gelding with Omar Aldabbagh.
Then Texcess was sold at the Barretts' mixed sale in January in Pomona, for $300,000. The new owners, Carl Van Burger, a longtime Mitchell client, and father and son Wayne and Scott Anastasi, turned the gelding over to Mitchell four days before the Sunshine Millions Classic.
Texcess finished third in the 1 1/8 -mile race restricted to California- and Florida-breds, earning back 40% of his purchase price.
Texcess, originally purchased for $85,000 as a 2-year-old, will be trying to win for the first time since Dec. 4, 2004 on Saturday. He scored the biggest of his three victories in the $1-million Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs in Vinton, La. Finishing directly behind him was Closing Argument, who also finished second to Giacomo in last year's Kentucky Derby.
Van Burger, a real estate developer who has been involved in racing as an owner and breeder for about 30 years, had been aware of Texcess since he was bred by Ron Gomez and had even considered buying him at Barretts' in May 2004.
When the opportunity arose again, he was eager. The partnership was formed with the Anastasis, and Mitchell approved the purchase.
"I'm very happy," said Van Burger, who also will be running a horse for the first time in the Santa Anita Handicap. "This horse is only at the beginning of his 4-year-old year and this will be the third $1-million race he has started in. I think he has lots of potential.
"I don't think anyone has seen the best of him yet. He just turned 4 and he is still learning and Mike likes the way he is training."
Although he has had an interest in racing for many years, Scott Anastasi, who is also in real estate, has been an owner for only about a year. His father owns Anastasi Development Company in Redondo Beach.
Scott Anastasi, who says he has a dozen horses with Mitchell, has already enjoyed graded-stakes success, having won the Del Mar Handicap last summer with Leprechaun Kid, a horse claimed for $80,000.
"We're going crazy," he said, in reference to the family's excitement about having a Big 'Cap starter. "We'll probably have about 50 people there on Saturday. We're having a blast and it all has to do with Mike.
"He's a good trainer and a good horseman and we let him do his job."
Tyler Baze, whose best finish in three Big 'Cap tries was a third on Saint Buddy in 2004, will ride Texcess for the first time.
Texcess was in good shape when he went to his new home and has thrived since, according to Mitchell.
"Paul [Aguirre] was a good caretaker," he said. "He did a very good job with Texcess. There wasn't anything I had to change with the horse and Paul was very helpful.
"[Texcess] has trained so well and he's maintained his weight. I'll ship him from Hollywood Park the day of the race....
"I hate to run a horse in a race if I know I'm going to get my doors blown off. For a million dollars, I have to take a shot at this. The bottom line is, how is he doing? And this horse is doing great. This is a good spot to take a shot."
Mitchell says he believes High Limit, the winner of the San Pasqual and Strub earlier in the meet, is the one to beat.
"Every time I run a horse against [trainer Bobby] Frankel, I always feel, even if he's 100-1, I have him to beat because I have so much respect for him. Bobby has High Limit real good right now and I think he'll probably be able to get a mile and a quarter."
Mitchell likes to recall his favorite Santa Anita Handicap winner, Ack Ack. Trained by Charlie Whittingham, who had a record nine wins in the Grade I, Ack Ack carried 130 pounds to victory in 1971 and went on to become horse of the year.
"I've always been partial to Ack Ack because he was able to be successful at 5 1/2 furlongs and go all the way to a mile and a quarter and continue to win," Mitchell said. "He went to the lead and never looked back."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Santa Anita Handicap
The field for Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap, which will be the 10th race of an 11-race card, with jockeys, weights and morning line odds in post position order. First race is at noon and Santa Anita Handicap will run approximately at 5 p.m.(TV: ESPN News).
*--* HORSE JOCKEY, WEIGHT ODDS With Distinction Javier Santiago, 115 20-1 Magnum Jon Court, 112 15-1 Texcess Tyler Baze, 114 12-1 Spellbinder Martin Pedroza, 115 10-1 High Limit Patrick Valenzuela, 120 5-2 Lava Man Corey Nakatani, 120 3-1 Giacomo Mike Smith, 118 7-2 Wilko Garrett Gomez, 115 5-1 Marenostrum Victor Espinoza, 112 12-1