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Thursday, April 18, 2013 - Page updated at 08:00 p.m.
Emerald Downs opener: Gallyn Mitchell won't take success for granted
By Scott Hanson
Seattle Times staff
In a sport where nothing is certain except major injuries, jockey Gallyn Mitchell broke the rules.
Year after year, there he was at Auburn's Emerald Downs, at or near the top of the jockey standings. From the track's opening in 1996 through 2011, Mitchell was in the top five in victories each year, with two riding titles. You can be forgiven if you took his success for granted, because he did, too.
That changed Aug. 8 last year. Mitchell was leading Blueberry Smoothie into the starting gate for the Angie C Stakes but the filly reared up and tossed Mitchell. The horse came down on Mitchell's hand.
Mitchell's season was over. The bone below his right thumb was broken into pieces. It was the start to the most painful months of Mitchell's career.
Mitchell underwent surgery for the first time in his life. Most veteran jockeys would need at least a couple of hands to count the number of operations they've undergone.
"I've been fortunate that in my 32 years, that's the worst injury I have had," said Mitchell, 50, called by his childhood nickname Booger by just about everyone. "In this business, it's not if you get hurt, it's when, and how bad."
The past eight months have been tough for Mitchell, but he will be back in the saddle Friday at Emerald Downs, the start of the 18th season at the Auburn racetrack.
No one will be happier to be riding than Mitchell. The forced time away made him realize how much he loved riding, and he missed it greatly.
"Honestly, I think the injury might have been a blessing in disguise," said Mitchell, who at 5 feet has not had to worry about weight like most riders do. "I think I started to take it for granted. I think I got a little lazy."
Mitchell was so eager to ride again that, for the first time in more than a decade, he rode in the winter, going to Turf Paradise in Phoenix. He was off to a hot start before he was unseated in a race Dec. 23 and was clipped by an oncoming horse.
The damages: fractures in his ankle and spine, and another seven weeks off.
Two weeks after returning, his arm went numb during a race at Turf Paradise.
"It wasn't fair for the other riders if I continued to ride," said Mitchell, who said he had a pinched nerve.
So he returned home to Enumclaw to get ready for Emerald.
With each victory, Mitchell adds to his track records for career mounts (7,732), victories (1,347) and earnings ($13,847,580). He also holds the Emerald mark with 76 stakes victories. It's heady stuff for a rider who was one of the lower tier of riders at Longacres in Renton from 1981 to 1992. During most of those years, Mitchell was plagued by alcohol and drug addiction, but he proudly says he has been sober for 21 years.
Mitchell believes that he would not have achieved his level of success without the change in lifestyle.
"I am not real proud of some of the things I've done, but would I change anything I've done? I would say no," said Mitchell, who has three children with his wife, Denise, who is his agent. "I've been able to help out people who were in the same predicament I was in."
Mitchell, known for his skills riding inexperienced young horses, has won two Longacres Miles at Emerald Downs. In the 2009 Mile, he guided Assessment to a win in the Northwest's premier race with a brilliant ride from the No. 12 post.
It's no wonder Mitchell is a finalist for the Washington Racing Hall of Fame.
"It would be very fitting if he's the first Emerald Downs jockey to get in," said Joe Withee, who has been the director of broadcasting since the track opened. "I would really like to see him get in. I think his consistency and success will make that happen."
Despite being at an age when most jockeys have retired or are winding down, Mitchell has no plans to retire. He said he feels better than he has in years.
"People keep asking me, 'When are you going to retire?' " Mitchell said. "I can't put a number on it. You are only as old as you feel, and I don't feel 50. I figure my body will let me know. That's going to be the hardest thing to do, but I want it to be my call, and not injuries be the reason."
Mitchell believes being "horse-wise" has helped him avoid major injuries, and said he would like to ride 10 more years or longer.
If that's the case, Mitchell's Emerald riding records will be hard to catch.
"I'm proud of what I've accomplished, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't," Mitchell said. "But records are made to be broken. And when that happens, I hope I'm around to congratulate him."
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