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Breeders' Cup a welcome distraction for Mike Mitchell

The popular longtime trainer, who's battled back this year after a brain tumor diagnosis, is looking for his horse Obviously to help him notch his first Cup victory.

October 27, 2012|By Eric Sondheimer

They pat him on the shoulder, put their arms around him and shake his hand.

So many friends and acquaintances are coming up to trainer Mike Mitchell that you'd think he were running for political office.

Mostly, they are expressing their profound respect and gratitude for the 64-year-old as he continues to dedicate himself to his family and the horses he loves while dealing with serious health issues as he prepares for next week's Breeders' Cup World Championships at Santa Anita.

"This is a small fraternity, and he's certainly been one of the guys who's been here a lifetime," trainer John Sadler said.

On June 29, Mitchell had brain surgery after a tumor was discovered. Then came radiation treatments and uncertainty. "I can say as a Christian, my faith has helped me get through this ordeal," Mitchell said.

Mitchell is ready to send out the front-running Obviously in the $2-million Breeders' Cup Mile next Saturday at Santa Anita. Obviously, a 4-year-old gelding, set a turf course record of 1:32.14 in the Del Mar Mile on Aug. 26 and came within 0.06 of a second of setting another course record at Santa Anita on Oct. 7 in the Arroyo Seco Mile.

"The horse doesn't like to be caught, obviously," co-owner Anthony Fanticola said.

Obviously, the Irish-bred son of Choisir, has won six of 11 races and will be one of two horses Mitchell hopes to run next weekend. Camp Victory is also pre-entered in the $1-million Turf Sprint.

There's nothing more therapeutic for Mitchell than waking up at 4 a.m. and making his daily trip to the barn. "I love the excitement and I love training horses," he said.

His father, Earl, was a trainer, and Mitchell learned from two of the best, Willard Proctor and Farrell Jones.

In all, Mitchell has won 2,613 races and nearly $64 million in purses since obtaining his training license in 1974, including 17 Southern California training titles. For years, Mitchell has experienced uncommon success in developing horses after placing claims for owners. He's won the Del Mar Handicap, San Diego Handicap, Jim Murray Handicap and Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championships with claiming horses.

Jack Disney was part of a group of owners who repeatedly placed their trust in Mitchell. "The best horse we've ever claimed I didn't like at all and he convinced me and the horse earned $590,000," Disney said.

Mitchell has never won a Breeders' Cup race, and he'll be relying on the instincts of Santa Anita's leading rider, 22-year-old Joe Talamo, who handles Obviously. "I don't give Joe any instructions," Mitchell said. "He knows more about this horse than we do."

Mitchell's fellow trainers can attest to how much he enjoys getting to the winner's circle. "We're fierce competitors," Sadler said. "We've been battling for years. He's a hard-core, tough trainer. It speaks well for the fight he is in now."

Mitchell's wife, Denise, said her husband has been steadily regaining his strength.

"He's actually doing real well," she said. "All summer, he went through radiation and was very fatigued. He's getting his strength back."

Assistant trainer Phil D'Amato has provided invaluable help in keeping the Mitchell barn running smoothly.

The sport is filled with highs and lows. One of Mitchell's best horses, the highly regarded 3-year-old filly Potesta, suffered a career-ending fracture to her left front foot during a workout on Sept. 14. Mitchell had to make a difficult phone call to the co-owners, Fanticola and Joseph Scardino, who also own Obviously.

"We didn't know if we were going to have to put her down. Both said, 'Spare no expense, save her.' We saved her. Everything worked out real good," Mitchell said.

Mitchell has plenty to live for. His youngest daughter, Shea, is scheduled to marry jockey Julien Leparoux on Dec. 10.

And then there's Obviously, whose owners paid $100,000 to supplement the horse for the Breeders' Cup Mile on Mitchell's recommendation. They've once again decided to follow the instincts of a man they consider a horse whisperer in Southern California racing.

"When you get a guy who cares about the animal himself, you have a big advantage," Fanticola said.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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