Growing up in Frankfort, Robert O. Mitchell never dreamed of owning racehorses. Riding his pony on his grandparents’ farm was as close as the UofL School of Medicine alumnus came to the horse business until after graduating from medical school and training at UofL in general and cardiovascular surgery.
“Drs. Hiram Polk and J. David Richardson always took the fifth-year general surgery residents to Churchill Downs,” Mitchell said. “That was my first trip to Churchill Downs. Even if you had asked me then, I would never have thought I would own a horse or have a Kentucky Oaks winner that was born on my farm.”
Yet on May 6, Secret Oath, a filly that Mitchell and his wife Stacy raised on their farm, out of a mare that they also raised, won the Kentucky Oaks. While many high-performing racehorses are owned by groups of investors, having a home-bred horse win the prestigious Oaks is a bit unusual.
“I live on the farm. We have never put a horse on the racetrack that wasn’t born here,” Mitchell said. “I have never bought a racehorse.”
In 2002, the Mitchells purchased Briland Farm in Lexington, where he practices as a heart surgeon. They bought a mare for $1 and began a small-scale Thoroughbred breeding operation.
“I’m not a typical doctor type. I don’t play golf. I get my relaxation by driving the tractor and delivering foals. We had one born 48 hours ago,” Mitchell said. “We mostly breed horses and sell them, but in the breeding business you tend to get in the racing business by default if horses don’t sell.”
Such was the case with Secret Oath. When buyers showed little interest in her as a yearling, the Mitchells withdrew her from the Keeneland sale and put her in training with a successful Thoroughbred trainer, D. Wayne Lukas. The move paid off as Secret Oath proved her ability with four wins leading up to the Oaks.
Although he was introduced to Churchill Downs by Hiram Polk and J. David Richardson, chair and vice chair of surgery at UofL at the time, Mitchell said that for him, horses and medicine are very distinct endeavors. Nevertheless, both are knowledge-based and involve a lot of data – and both are serious business.
“You have to be very objective when you’re in the horse business. It’s easy to fall in love with these animals and think of them as pets. It is easy for the emotions to take over and for you to lose your objectivity,” Mitchell said. “And you have to be objective and analytical to be a heart surgeon.”
Mitchell, who strategically plotted the best match for Secret Oath’s dam, Absinthe Minded, said he enjoys the analytical aspect of breeding.
“I like trying to find the breedings and the matings and the genetics. It’s like trying to play chess with Mother Nature. Every now and then, Mother Nature lets you win.”
Secret Oath followed her Oaks win with a fourth-place finish in the Preakness Stakes on May 21.