Mike Mitchell is one of the game’s lifers.
The 56-year-old trainer has won more than 1,900 races in a career spanning more than 30 years.
He walked hots for Farrell Jones, who exercised Seabiscuit, and he was a pony boy for Ron McAnally, who, as a hand for his uncle, trainer Reggie Cornell, was the first to herald the incredible stretch-running ability of an unraced 2-year-old that came from behind to beat everything in the barn in the mornings. The horse was Silky Sullivan.
Mitchell, who has 13 Southern California training titles, is enjoying another banner year. He won his first Grade I race when Kela captured the Bing Crosby Handicap on July 25. The 6-year-old son of Numerous added to his resume by upsetting pro tem sprint leader Pico Central in the Pat O’Brien Breeders’ Cup Handicap on Aug. 14. Now it is on to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
But this is not a horse story. It’s about values and priorities, and for Mitchell, his two daughters, McCall and Shay, and his wife, Denise, there is no greater fulfillment than meeting those ideals.
The Mitchells are members of Hope Chapel Church in Hermosa Beach. Through that venue, McCall, 20, and Shay, 17, attend camp with children who suffer from Down syndrome, which is associated with a range of developmental difficulties including delayed motor skills and delayed cognitive skills. It effects more than two million people worldwide.
Denise heads a church ministry that cares for the infirm in Vietnam. She left Sunday on her latest pilgrimage.
On an off-day at Del Mar recently, Mitchell and his family toured Sea World with a group afflicted with Down syndrome. They had a great time.
"I’ve got some good kids and they were raised by a really good mother," Mitchell proudly said during an exclusive interview with GamingToday. "Through our church, they take about 60 Down syndrome kids to camp where they enjoy activities like bowling and swimming. They also take trips to Sea World and wild animal parks. Each youngster from our church cares for four to five kids. I say kids, but a lot of them are 50 and 60 years old with the mind of a five-year-old.
"It’s heart-warming to see our young people devoting time and energy to take care of these children with special requirements, and when I say take care of them, it’s not just lip service. They do everything from bathe them to clean their underwear. It’s not a job a lot of people can handle and those in need appreciate it. My daughters and Denise really deserve the credit. I support them when I’m at Del Mar and I’ve been making the trip with them to Sea World about three years."
Despite the debilitating handicaps of Down syndrome, which include delayed speech and language acquisition and short-term memory, a strong bond has developed between the Mitchells and their flock.
"The Down people love my two girls," Mike said. "They want to marry them, they call me father-in-law, and that’s really kind of cute. But there’s one guy who loves McCall and he just cries his eyes out when she leaves and has to go home. About two years ago he ran to the car and wanted to get in. McCall had to tell him, ”˜Now Larry, you go back.’
"We recently read a beautiful letter one girl wrote to McCall, saying ”˜I had a wonderful time with you here.’ That’s the kind of satisfaction this brings and I’m sure it’s a nice break for the parents to have a week off. The whole effort is really pretty neat."
For sure, it’s much more than "neat." Although progress has given cause for hope, families with members who suffer from incurable neurological nightmares such as Down syndrome, autism and Asperger syndrome, to name but three, welcome any physical relief that can be provided. But the emotional scars are infinite.
The Mitchells contribute willingly.
"We buy clothes for them when we can because some of the families are very poor," Mitchell said. "It’s a wonderful thing that our church does. Denise will be in Vietnam two weeks for the ministry, visiting the ill in hospitals, the blind and others who require care and support. It’s pretty awesome. While the church lends its name to the missionary, its people basically pay their own way. The money doesn’t come from the tithing. The tithing from the church primarily goes for needs of the people we help."
And now help is being elicited from race trackers other than the Mitchells.
"Denise wrote letters to all my clients (owners) explaining her commitment and she raised more than $6,000 towards the ministry," Mitchell said. "It’s wonderful to hear the encouraging stories my wife tells when she comes back from Vietnam. Same thing with my kids when they return from camp. It’s a different emotion than winning a race. There’s a satisfaction that stays with you for life."
Mitchell has been a staunch supporter of Pat Valenzuela, currently suspended for failing to provide hair follicles suitable for drug testing per his conditional contract with the California Horse Racing Board. Mitchell says the matter should have been resolved differently.
"We all know P. Val has a drug problem," Mitchell said. "He shaved his hair because he was doing drugs. For the (Del Mar) stewards to tell him he can’t ride because he shaved his hair, I disagree. I thought they would rule that he grow his hair long enough to be tested and then allow him to ride. But for him to try and cover this up by saying he decided to cut all his hair off, that’s a bunch of crap. Maybe this will make him realize he’s running out of chances. I have to think eventually he’ll be reinstated but this should be an eye-opener for him that they’re not messing around any more."
”¡ Mitchell on Kela’s chances in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Lone Star Park, where he won the Texas Mile in the slop by more than five lengths last April: "He ran well in the slop there and ran badly the second time (fourth by 3 Â½ lengths in the Lone Star Park Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on May 31), but the track that day really didn’t favor him."
”¡ Olympiad XXVIII should be X-rated. Between women’s diving and women’s beach volleyball, there’s more bare butt than there was in "Hair." And multiple gold medal-winning swimmer Michael Phelps’ tights are so low he shows more pubic hair than P. Val. Maybe in 2008 lap-dancing will become an Olympic event and Howard Stern replaces Bob Costas as host.