On the morning of Feb. 11, a thoroughbred trainer named Mike Mitchell wrestled with his conscience. A horse named Charismatic would be racing that day at Santa Anita, in the sixth race -- a claiming race. It would take only a phone call from Mitchell to one of 20 owners for whom he works to make available the $62,500 needed to claim the horse. Mitchell is a specialist on the West Coast in claiming horses. Mike Mitchell loved Charismatic.
"He has a good pedigree and he's a gorgeous animal," Mitchell said this week, from Hollywood Park. "Oh, he's beautiful. He's massive. He's just the way you'd like a horse to be put together. I was kind of blown away by the look of the horse."
Mitchell had watched Charismatic closely in November, in another claiming race. He watched him again in yet another race in which Mitchell's horse finished fourth and Charismatic was, as usual, somewhere behind. Mitchell did not understand why Charismatic was doing so poorly, but the horse's beauty spoke to him of potential. In February, when trainer Wayne Lukas dropped the horse into another claiming race, Mitchell had his second opportunity to take over Charismatic.
Only the quirkiest of reasons held him back from a horse that has gone on to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and today will attempt to complete the Triple Crown with a victory in the Belmont Stakes.
Charismatic's owner, Bob Lewis, had been kind to Mitchell. A few times Lewis gave Mitchell tickets to the drag races in Pomona. The drag races? A multimillionaire beer distributor, Lewis had access to tickets because the beer company was a sponsor at the drag strip. "I like the dragsters," said Mitchell.
Once before, he had claimed a horse that Lewis owned but that time, Mitchell said, "Bob Baffert kind of left me with a guilt trip." Baffert, like Lukas, trains horses for Lewis. "Bob said, `How can you take a horse from a guy who's giving you tickets?' "
Baffert may have been joking, but his words gave Mitchell pause. "I think Mr. Lewis would have wished me well," Mitchell said. "I'm not like a drinking buddy of his. It's just that he's been really, really nice to me. He's nice to everybody. I've sat in his office and talked horses with him. People with his kind of money are usually tough people to work for."
In February, Mitchell had a feeling. "That's what it comes down to in claiming, a gut feeling," he said. "It's the closest thing to a poker game you can have."
His feeling told him to stay away from Charismatic because of Lewis.
Other claiming experts were more pragmatic.
"He's a big, beautiful horse. I thought he looked like a stakes horse, from his conformation," said trainer Bill Spawr, who has a stable at Santa Anita. "But I was suspicious when Wayne dropped him that there was something wrong. I thought, `They spent $200,000 on the horse. It didn't work out. Why should I get involved? We thought they were trying to unload him.'
"I really couldn't give an owner a reason to take him. I can't sell somebody on the idea that he's beautiful. They'd say, `He's beautiful, huh? Well, I'll get you a pet bird, it's cheaper.' "
Spawr once claimed a filly named Exchange, who went on to win $1.3 million. "The difference was," he said, "she was in form, she was running well."
Not so with Charismatic, who had won only one of nine starts before February. Still, Mitchell was tempted and would have claimed him had it not been for the drag-strip tickets.
"But let me be clear about one thing," Mitchell said. "There's no way I would have shipped him to Kentucky and tried to run in the Kentucky Derby. No way. The only guy I know who would make that move would be Lukas. I never would have gone that route. It hadn't crossed anybody's mind."
Even after Charismatic ran well in the February claiming race, finishing second and being placed first on a disqualification, the best Mitchell could see in Charismatic's future was, perhaps, a stakes race at Hollywood Park. "I'm happy for Mr. Lewis that I didn't claim him," Mitchell said.
What turned Charismatic into the Derby and Preakness winner remains conjecture.
Lukas has said several times that the colt responded when raced more frequently.
"I think the change of race tracks helped," Mitchell said. "The tracks are a little harder in California. Maybe they were stinging his feet. There's such a drastic difference in the horse now. He's totally changed. It will be interesting if he comes back to California to see how he does."
Spawr offered another view. "He's one of those late-maturing horses. They grow until they're four or 4 1/2 and we're talking about an early 3-year-old. He matured at the right time. And he's a big horse who can take a lot. The more you do with him the better he does. Many horses do the opposite and go the other way."
The 131st Belmont Stakes
Post Jockey Odds
1. Teletable Velazquez 99-1
2. Vision and Verse Castillo Jr. 20-1
3. Silverbulletday Bailey 4-1
4. Charismatic Antley 2-1
5. Pineaff LeJeune Jr. 30-1
6. Lemon Drop Kid Santos 20-1
7. Patience Game Desormeaux 20-1
8. Adonis Chavez 20-1
9. Prime Directive Smith 30-1
10. Menifee Day 7-2
11. Stephen Got Even Sellers 10-1
12. Best of Luck Samyn 6-1
Weights: Silverbulletday 121, others 126 pounds.
Distance: 1A miles.Purse: $1,000,000.
Post time: 5:27 p.m.TV: WJLA-7, WMAR-2, 4:30 p.m.
Stakes Record: Secretariat -- 2:24 (1973).
Triple Crown Winners
Year Horse Jockey Trainer
1978 Affirmed Steve Cauthen Laz Barrera
1977 Seattle Slew Jean Cruguet Billy Turner
1973 Secretariat Ron Turcotte Lucien Laurin
1948 Citation Eddie Arcaro Jimmy Jones
1946 Assault Warren Mehrtens Max Hirsch
1943 Count Fleet John Longden Don Cameron
1941 Whirlaway Eddie Arcaro Ben Jones
1937 War Admiral Charles KurtsingerGeorge Conway
1935 Omaha William Saunders Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons
1930 Gallant FoxEarl Sande Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons
1919 Sir Barton John Loftus H.G. Bedwell
CAPTION: Trainer Mike Mitchell cites sense of loyalty to Charismatic owner Bob Lewis as reason he passed on horse.