DEL MAR, Calif. -- First it was San Juan Capistrano winner On the Acorn, and now comes Big Booster and Sun Boat. Three times this year, trainer Mike Mitchell has developed former claimers into stakes-class runners and, in two of the cases, graded stakes winners.
For Big Booster and Sun Boat, much of the improvement may have been because of their fondness for synthetic surfaces that are now carpeting Southern California. But in all three instances, their improvement also coincided with being gelded.
Both run Sunday in the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
There are many reasons to geld a horse - often owing to an unruly temperament - but the decision can be an emotional one. It's not like a change of blinkers, or a shadow roll. You can't experiment. There's no going back.
Mitchell said he weighs a combination of factors. In the case of Big Booster, "He was a nasty son of a gun," Mitchell said Wednesday morning "He just seemed the perfect candidate to cut."
But Mitchell said economics also plays a role. "If they're not going be worth anything as a stallion, why not cut them?" he said.
Forego, Kelso, John Henry, and Native Diver were the poster boys for geldings the latter part of the 20th century. This decade, it has been Funny Cide and Lava Man. If either Big Booster or Sun Boat can upset Lava Man, the defending race winner, on Sunday, he will join Best Pal, General Challenge, and Lava Man as Pacific Classic winners who won't be able to be whisked off to stud.
Sun Boat comes into the Pacific Classic off a victory in the San Diego Handicap, Del Mar's final prep for the Pacific Classic. He has won twice in three starts - his lone loss coming by a nose - since being claimed by Mitchell, gelded, and moved from turf to synthetic surfaces at Hollywood Park and Del Mar.
"The day I claimed him, there were two or three in the race I was looking at," Mitchell said. "I always pray for wisdom that I'll take the right one. When I do that, it's automatic when I look at the horses - no, no, no, yes. When I saw Sun Boat, he was a pretty little horse."
Sun Boat was claimed for $50,000 on April 12 for a partnership that includes Chris Closson's Bongo Racing Stable, Bob Tjosvold, and Dr. Dan Capen, the surgeon best known for putting together jockey Chris McCarron following his horrible accident at Santa Anita in the fall of 1986. Sun Boat ran poorly the day he was claimed, so Mitchell dropped him in for $40,000 on May 13, when he made in his first start on Hollywood Park's Cushion Track and after being gelded. He won so impressively that day that Mitchell ran him back in Hollywood Park's Californian Stakes, in which he was nosed out by Buzzards Bay.
Big Booster was claimed earlier this year in Florida for $62,500 by trainer Peter Walder on behalf of Mitchell for owners Scott Anastasi and Jim Ukegawa. After making one start under Walder's name at Gulfstream, Big Booster came to Mitchell and was gelded.
"Dr. Melinda Blue does the gelding for me, and she does a great job," Mitchell said. "They're back breezing 10 days later. Big Booster, once we gelded him, he settled in very nice. Now, he's just a dream to train."
Big Booster, like Sun Boat, flourished at Hollywood Park. After moving on to Cushion Track, Big Booster won an optional-claiming race as a 25-1 shot, then was third, less than a length behind Lava Man, in the Hollywood Gold Cup.
"Any time you run second or third to Lava Man, that's nothing to be ashamed of," Mitchell said. "Big Booster needs time between races, which is why we didn't run him back in the San Diego."
Mitchell, 59, won four straight training titles here from 1981 to 1984, then added two more in 1995 and 1996. He is the third-winningest trainer in Del Mar history, with 372 victories, and entered Wednesday's card just two behind the late Farrell Jones - one of Mitchell's mentors - who is second to Ron McAnally.
Throughout his career, Mitchell primarily has been known for winning claiming races, and many of his stakes winners have been former claimers, like Kessem Power, Leprechaun Kid, and Star Over the Bay.
"Here I've got two that were claiming horses, and through the grace of God they're in the Pacific Classic," Mitchell said. "It helped that they were gelded, but I've got to think the synthetic surfaces has had more to do with it. I don't think Big Booster would have run like this on a dirt track."
Mitchell will start his Sunday the way he usually does, by going to church.
"I might have to go to one service to pray for Sun Boat, and another to pray for Big Booster," he said, laughing.
And hours before he runs those two in the Pacific Classic, his daughter Shea - who is about to play Belle for seven months in a Hong Kong stage production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" - will sing the national anthem Sunday at noon at Del Mar.
"That'll be a great way to start the day off, and we'll go from there," Mitchell said.