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Veteran Trainer, Former Jockey Mitch Shirota Dies at 78

| Churchill Downs Communications | 01/05/2012 #
  • Trainer Mitch Shirota (photo courtesy of Keeneland Race Course)

  • Mitch Shirota in his riding days. (Churchill Downs photo)

Veteran trainer and retired jockey Mitch Shirota, whose training career spanned more than three decades and included stakes triumphs in the Grade I Top Flight at Aqueduct and a memorable Kentucky Derby Day stakes win at Churchill Downs, died early Wednesday, Jan. 4 at Norton Suburban Hospital in Louisville.

The Hawaiian-born Shirota had been hospitalized since Monday, but had endured a lengthy illness.  He was 78.

Visitation and a memorial service are scheduled for Christ Chapel in the Churchill Downs stable area on Saturday, Jan. 7.  Visitation will be conducted in the chapel from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (all times Eastern), with the service set to follow at 2 p.m.  Access to the chapel is available via Churchill Downs’ Gate 5 off Longfield Ave.

The diminutive Shirota was a gregarious resident of the Churchill Downs stable area known by friends for his sharp, and occasionally biting, wit.  But he possessed considerable talent as a horseman. Equibase statistics, which have been compiled since 1976, show that Shirota saddled 236 winners from 1,637 career starters, and his horses collected career earnings of $5,692,466.  He won 79 races from 676 starts at Churchill Downs with earnings at his home track of $2,065,573.

His years as a trainer were preceded by a 15-year run as jockey that began in 1958 at Agua Caliente in Tijuana, Mexico. Shirota eventually became a riding fixture at Churchill Downs, Louisville’s Miles Park and other Kentucky tracks in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Statistics on his years as a jockey are not available.

Shirota is survived by his wife, Lynda; their daughter, Lori Gowen (Greg); grandchildren Whitney Gowen and Tyler Gowen; brothers Seiko and Hiro Shirota; and sisters Kay Tada, Sumi Martin and Tomi Shirota.  He was preceded in death by a brother, Seiyu Shirota, and a sister, Evelyn Tan.

Born and educated through high school in Maui, Shirota moved to the United States in the mid 1950s (Hawaii did not become a state until 1959) to attend Brigham Young University, where he graduated in three years with a degree in political science. He became involved with Thoroughbreds when he worked at a California farm following his graduation from BYU, and decided to pursue a riding career when a friend suggested he had the perfect stature for the job.

After the conclusion of his career in the saddle, Shirota obtained a trainer’s license in the mid 1970s and saddled his first winner at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 18, 1977.  His final victory was provided by Holy Dixie at Churchill Downs in a maiden race for $15,000-to-$12,500 claiming horses on June 29, 2007.  His last recorded start occurred a few weeks later at Arlington Park, when Mutadda finished fourth in a Maiden Special Weight race on Aug. 25, 2007.

Between those career bookends, Shirota saddled winners of 21 stakes races – including five graded events – headed by a win by Gainewsay Stable’s Firm Stance in the $200,000, Grade I Top Flight at Aqueduct on April 17, 1992.  The daughter of 1978 Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winner Affirmed also won the $150,000 Red Bud Breeders’ Cup at River Downs in a three-year racing career in which Firm Stance compiled a record of 7-3-0 in 17 starts and earnings of $443,771.

Another stakes highlight was provided by Andrena Van Doren’s Shaconage when she won Churchill Downs’ Grade III Argent Mortgage (now the Grade II Distaff Turf Mile) by a nose over heavily-favored Etoile Montante on the 2004 Kentucky Derby Day program.  The win was Shirota’s first in a stakes race at Churchill Downs and its timing made the long-awaited triumph even sweeter.

"Cha-Ching! I've been coming to Churchill Downs for 20 years now and this is my first stakes win here," Shirota said after the milestone win.  “To do it on Derby Day is even more special.”

Shirota’s initial stakes success at the Louisville track was followed a few weeks later by another stakes victory by Shaconage over the Matt Winn Turf Course in the Grade III Locust Grove Handicap.  The homebred daughter of El Prado also won Woodbine’s Ontario Colleen in 2003 and the Ellis Park Breeders’ Cup Turf in 2005, additional high points in a four-year career during which Shirota’s star ran 29 times with a record of 6-3-7 and earned $534,051. Later that year Shaconage provided Shirota with his only start in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, where she ran sixth to Ouija Board in the Filly & Mare Turf at Lone Star Park.

Other notable Shirota trainees include Van Doren’s Jadada, a half-brother to Shaconage by Jade Hunter and a career earner of $449,088 who counted the Grade III Fayette Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland and Ellis Park’s Governors Handicap among seven wins from 52 starts; Gainesway’s Wicked Mama, winner of Ellis Park’s Dade Breeders’ Cup Turf Classic in 1995; Warren Kemper’s Madam Bear, who won the 1992 Queen Breeders’ Cup at Turfway Park before a runner-up finish to Ifyoucouldseemenow in the Grade III Brown & Williamson (now Grade I Humana Distaff) at Churchill Downs; and Maramour Stable’s Limanda, who took the 1995 running of the Queen Breeders’ Cup.  Shirota notched his first career stakes win with Note of Victory in the 1977 Sallan Cup Handicap at Detroit Race Course.