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Mitchell opting for Gulfstream

Dec 14, 2004 5:23 AM

Santa Anita will be minus a major player during its 85-day meeting that begins on Dec. 26. Mike Mitchell will be missing in action. The 56-year-old trainer has been running horses non-stop in California for more than 30 years but when Gulfstream Park opens on Jan. 2, the Bakersfield native will be at the Florida track to organize a string of horses he will race there. It will mark the first time Mitchell has campaigned at a track outside California on a regular basis.

Mitchell will maintain a stable at his Hollywood Park headquarters and also continue to race in Southern California. But without overnight purses benefitting from slot machine revenue in California, and with the likelihood that a slots initiative will be approved in Florida in about a year, Mitchell sees the handwriting on the wall.

"What kick-started my move was the strong prospect of slots coming to Florida in 2006," Mitchell said. "It will be voted on in March (2005) and from what I understand it will be approved. But that’s only one reason I’m sending horses to Florida. I also want to establish myself as a trainer there where I’ll have a much better selection of horses to claim."

Mitchell is one of the top claiming trainers of all-time, but opportunities in the Golden State have become as slim as Michael Jackson’s nose.

"I make a good part of my living as a claiming trainer and horses in California are so picked through you can’t find anything," Mitchell said. "I see the same horses over and over, so a lot of my owners wanted to look elsewhere. I’m sending Kela (a multiple Grade I stakes winner who was second in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint) to Florida along with my best 2-year-olds, Natural Phenomenon and Primitive Man, in addition to some other horses.

"We’ll see how it goes and when the Gulfstream meet ends I’ll make a decision about staying there," he said. "If I I’ve got enough reason to stay, then I will."

Meanwhile, Mitchell will spend time both in Californian and Florida until he is properly established in the Sunshine State. "For now I’ll keep my best help in California," he said.

Any way it’s sliced, Mitchell’s unprecedented move is a matter of dollars and cents.

"It comes down to money, I don’t care what anybody says," Mitchell said. "Some people say horsemen aren’t coming to California because of the strict drug testing that’s recently been enacted (banning so-called milkshakes, excessive bicarbonate cocktails given to a horse through a tube in its nose, believed to increase endurance) or because of new security measures, but that’s bull.

"They’re going where the money is," he said. "You take tracks like Sunland Park and Delta Downs and Mountaineer Park. Those places are dumps but because they have slot machines, horses are running for much higher purses than in California. I think the same thing is going to happen in Florida if it gets slots."

Presently, Gulfstream, owned by Magna Entertainment Corporation, which also owns Santa Anita, is undergoing major reconstruction.

"I’ve been there and it’s been completely flattened," Mitchell said of the existing site in Hallandale, Florida. "Eventually, the whole race track will be brand new, the barns, the grandstand and the track itself. I think it’s going to be a place everybody will want to go. With slots, there’s a good chance there will be year-round racing."

Mitchell says purses would skyrocket in the Golden State with the advent of slots.

"They would darn-near double, even triple," Mitchell said. "Instead, the last few meets at Santa Anita and Hollywood have seen decreases in overnight purse money. The only exception has been Del Mar. For seven weeks of the year, that’s where horsemen make the good money."

Purse money, drug testing and security aside, Mitchell thinks racing’s greatest priority should be preventing the changing of odds during the running of a race. In the age of computers, the price on horses — almost always horses on the lead — commonly drops well after the starting gate has opened, causing an unmistakable breach of integrity with bettors who play by the rules.

"They talk about this sophisticated testing and additional security and all the money racing is spending on it," Mitchell said. "It’s ironic that trainers who have had positives on milkshaking are the ones who were all for this new testing, so to me these tests have a lot of holes in them. They’re not fool-proof. But I do like the fact that six hours before a race, security is filming barns that have horses running. That’s great. But odds dropping during the running of a race, don’t tell me we don’t have the technology to stop that. I don’t know why this problem can’t be addressed. It’s terrible."

And that goes whether you’re racing in Florida or California.

The homestretch

Declan’s Moon will win the Eclipse Award as top male 2-year-old of 2004 if he takes Saturday’s Hollywood Futurity. However, the Future Book Kentucky Derby favorite will be Fusaichi Samurai, who looked like he was worth every penny of his $4.5 million purchase price in winning his debut at Hollywood last Saturday for Neil Drysdale.

"He’s a very fast horse so it didn’t surprise me (that he led throughout the 61/2-furlong race)," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "He got the lead pretty easy. He’s very professional, very straight-forward."

Jockey Victor Espinoza had the son of 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus geared down the last 16th of a mile and never touched him with the whip.

"This horse is unbelievable, his stride, the way he acts," said Espinoza, who rode Fusaichi Pegasus in his first start, a nose loss to David Copperfield in 1999. "He feels stronger than his father and he is so professional. I really believe he could be the best horse ever." Look for Fusaichi Samurai to make his next start at Santa Anita.

”¡ Agent Scott McClellan expects Alex Solis to resume riding "sometime in February" and plans to retain the book of jockey David Flores. In what is believed to be a racing first, only two dollars separated victorious Red Warrior from West War in Saturday’s fifth race at Hollywood. A total of $64,423 was bet to win on Red Warrior, and $64,421 on West War, who ran fourth. Both horses went off at 5-2.