INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For more than a decade, the acquisition of high-priced claimers helped trainer Mike Mitchell win some of the biggest races of his career.
Ever a Friend, claimed for $62,500 in December 2007, won the Grade 1 Frank Kilroe Mile the following March. Church Service, claimed for $50,000 in January 2008, won the Grade 3 Dallas Turf Cup in May of that year. On the Acorn, taken for $40,000 in November 2006, later won three graded stakes, including the Grade 2 Jim Murray Handicap in 2007 and 2008.
Mitchell will try to continue that theme this weekend, and this time is after a more prestigious trophy in the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup with the former $40,000 claimer Tap It Light. Tap It Light won the Grade 3 Tokyo City Handicap at Santa Anita in March, but an upset win in the Gold Cup would be a career milestone for Mitchell, 62.
It is a gamble worth taking, even in a field that includes Rail Trip, the leading older male in California this year.
"If everything sets up right, I can beat him," Mitchell said of Rail Trip. "Richard's Kid is a contender, too. The weight might be the equalizer, and I think the mile and a quarter is perfect for Tap It Light."
Tap It Light has won 8 of 27 starts and $368,211 in his career and 3 of 5 starts and $137,840 since being claimed. After missing all of 2009, Tap It Light has won 2 of 4 starts this year but was sixth in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap over about 1 3/4 miles on turf at Santa Anita in his last start on April 18.
"I don't think he cares for the grass like he does the dirt or synthetic," Mitchell said. "I don't think the mile and three-quarters was the problem."
The Tokyo City was run over 1 1/2 miles on the synthetic main track, so the Gold Cup distance will pose no problem for Tap It Light. In the Tokyo City, Tap It Light stalked the pace, took the lead in early stretch, and won by three-quarters of a length for his first stakes win.
The Gold Cup appeals to the horse's owners and Mitchell because it's a handicap. Rail Trip, who won the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap and Californian Stakes earlier at this meeting, will carry top weight of 123 pounds, two more than Richard's Kid and nine more than Tap It Light.
"We decided to look at the weights, and I think they're fair," Mitchell said. "He's training great, and I like how he's doing."