Johnny Mitchell doesn’t like to talk about himself. And he likes having his photo taken even less. Chat with him briefly and you’ll hear some pretty entertaining stories delivered with his trademark hilarity. He will tell you about his son Eoin, who turns 10 next week. And if you ask, he’ll let you know about the house he and wife Liz recently purchased in Atglen, Pa. But if you keep digging, you’ll discover that Johnny is one serious horseman with a boatload of experience who’s led a very interesting life.
Growing up in Dublin, Ireland, the only equestrian in his family was his paternal grandfather. The elder John Mitchell served in the Irish Army and fought during the 1916 Revolution in Dublin. His grandson saved up enough money to buy his own pony as a youngster, and the die was cast.
“It was just a bareback pony that I kept in me mother’s backyard. I’d ride him to school some days. I’d get to school, turn the pony out, come out at the end of the day, get the pony and ride him back home. And that’s how I started riding.”
At 14, he left home and went to work at The Curragh for the world-renowned Brownstown Stud.
“Neil McGrath was the trainer; they’re a very very famous Irish family, big trainers and breeders. I got lucky – there were a lot of older guys in the yard who were old-school riders, grooms, head men. And they all had me out; there were a lot of good people helping me. Before we’re allowed on a horse, you have to KNOW a horse…what makes it tick, from picking his feet to cleaning his stall. It was 10, maybe 11 months before I ever sat on a racehorse around the yard. Did stalls, walked, put on blankets. If you get a job in a yard, that’s what you’re going to do. Everyone starts out the same way. So before I ever got on a racehorse, they had me in an indoor school with no bridle, just a saddle, no stirrups – longeing me. It’s all your knees, legs and your balance. And then you get your jumping poles. I had hundreds of falls, so you’d get back up and have 101 falls. And if you whined and cried about it then that was it, you had to go. The Thoroughbred industry in Ireland is huge. It employs hundreds of thousands of people. So there are opportunities there, but you’re not going to just step into a position. The best horsemen in the world are the Irish, and most people from most countries will agree with that.”
He worked for trainer Nicky Henderson for a time before deciding that jumping just wasn’t for him. He then turned his attention to breaking babies before travelling throughout Europe on his own. Stints working in Germany and Italy followed. He arrived in the U.S. – and at Fair Hill – on April 25, 1999.
“I was supposed to come over from Ireland to work for Gene Weymouth. I came over with this little Irish kid; I didn’t know him. And when we got here Gene only needed one rider, so I ended up working for Chucky Lawrence, which was pretty cool and a better deal.”
He freelanced for a good while and also worked for Richard Lugovich and Michael Matz before coming on board at Herringswell eight years ago. He rode out until an accident earlier this Spring – a stirrup bar broke while breezing – dislocated his shoulder and collarbone.
“I’ve got this big bone sticking up above my shoulder. It’s separated. And it will require surgery to take a piece of the bone out. I’ve got six weeks of physical therapy three days a week; I’m in my second week now.”
He might be grounded, but Johnny hasn’t missed a step. His organizational skills and tireless attention to detail keep the wheels turning in our Fair Hill barns. Set-ups for eight stalls at Belmont are ready to be loaded onto a van, along with belongings of the accompanying grooms. Race trunks are packed and unpacked in a meticulous room catalogued with military precision. Bridles hang ready with owners’ colors, fastened together and labeled with identifications. The silks room, just feet away from assistant trainer Adrian Rolls’ desk, is a Johnny Mitchell masterpiece. Log books on that desk track the movements of those silks and Jockey Club foal papers. If you need to know where something is, ask Johnny.
And just down the shedrow is THE horse – the one who’s made every day brighter for the past few years.
“Messi (GER) is the coolest horse I’ve ever ridden anywhere, and I’ve been riding for 35 years. He is The Dude.”
Life out of the saddle has been an adjustment, but his new role is fulfilling.
“I take care of all the equipment, tack, basic stable supplies. It’s a longer day now, and it’s every day. I do like it. Will I ride again? I don’t know….”
Either way, Herringswell is happy to have Johnny Mitchell.
Herringswell’s silks room is Johnny’s masterpiece
And here’s a little tribute to our Johnny “AndAllDaBoyzInDaYard”