By the happiest
kind of coincidence, the richest event in the history of harness racing will
likely be won next week by the most popular man in the sport. The event is the
$150,000 Messenger Stake at New York's Roosevelt Raceway, and the man is Delvin
Miller. And by no coincidence at all but rather the relentless ferment through
which great talent works its way inexorably to the top, Miller is also the
finest all-round horseman that sulky racing has ever produced.
like that last one usually attract dissent as easily as kittens draw children.
In this instance, however, even bias allows scant support for argument. Miller
may have his equal in one or more of trotting's many key areas—in breeding,
raising, training, driving and stable and farm management, to name a few—but no
man's career has yet encompassed every facet of the sport with such resounding
success. He has won every major stake that trotting offers and some which are
no longer contested; he has more 2-minute miles to his credit (the equivalent
of foot racing's 4-minute mile) than most drivers have even witnessed; his
breeding savvy developed Adios into the premier pacing sire now in service; his
public stable is a model of efficiency and record holder in purse winnings; and
his advice on the care and training of horses, which appears in the trade
magazine Hoof Beats, is the best-read column of opinion in the business. A
final demonstration of the man's versatility occurred last year when he became
a track impresario, sponsoring his own meeting at Arden Downs in Washington,
Pa.—a meeting which was so successful that it is now a permanent stop on the
Grand Circuit, trotting's touring big league series of stakes. It is worth
noting also that Miller himself won the feature at that first meeting.
accounts for much of the Miller saga, but the leaven of warm human
relationships on which he rode to the top of his profession and which sustains
him at the top today is the happy byproduct of personality, not talent. This is
the epitome of the genus sportsman—by definition, "one who in sports is
fair and generous; a good loser and a graceful winner." In a bitterly
competitive arena, the mark of whose performers is often secrecy and
self-aggrandizement, Miller is an open-handed dispenser of aid and instruction
to all comers. Repeatedly, when he has had two horses in a big stake, he has
allowed assistants to drive the better horse, though without fear of criticism
he could have kept the glory (and cash) of winning for himself. This happened
in the Hambletonian (1953) and twice in the Little Brown Jug (1951 and '52).
And only a few weeks ago at Roosevelt Raceway, Miller chose to drive the colt
that placed second in the $34,000 Hopeful Pace while his assistant, Ned Bower,
drove the winner.
Trying to account
for such behavior the other day, Miller offered this explanation: "When I
was starting out in harness racing, there were very few kids like me around.
Most of the oldtimers wouldn't teach you anything. You had to find out
everything yourself. I made up my mind I'd be different if I got to be
successful." Though this may not be a full explanation of the development
of the man's character, the facts themselves are accurate enough. Now 45,
Miller began competitive driving at 16, in the rugged bush leagues of trotting,
long before the era of night pari-mutuel raceways. At 10, however, he was
already jogging horses for his grandfather on the farm near Avella, Pa., which
has been in Miller hands for more than 160 years. Some idea of Grandfather Tom
Miller's dedication to the trotting horse, which he passed on to Del, can still
be seen on the farm today. It is a 15/16-of-a-mile track, patiently dug around
a rocky hillside (the only site then available) during the 1890s, and so
perfectly leveled and drained that a bare minimum of tractor work would make it
serviceable once again.
interrupted only by three years' service in the remount in the CBI theater of
war, never hit a serious setback as he moved up through the minor leagues,
quickly, to the big time. He developed and drove to sparkling victories a slew
of the finest trotters and pacers ever in harness—Tar Heel, Solicitor, Direct
Rhythm, Stenographer, Lorraine (his first 2-minute performer)—and many whose
near approach to greatness could hardly have been achieved in other hands. But
it is undoubtedly true that Miller's shrewd analysis of Adios' potential and
his brilliant handling of the stallion's service mark the high point, thus far,
of his career, in both a sporting and financial sense. Adios' influence will be
a factor in the breeding of standard-breds for as long as the sport exists.
After the smashing success of his very first crop of foals, Adios went on to
earn more than a half million dollars in fees; when Miller sold him to the
Hanover Farm for another half million, he became the first million-dollar horse
in harness annals.
It is the finest
of ironies, therefore, that if Del Miller does not win the rich Messenger Stake
on July 4, Adios himself will be largely responsible. All three colts who
appear to have the best chance of beating Miller's own pair of entries are sons
of this great bay stallion. They are Joe O'Brien's Raider Frost and Shadow Wave
and Johnny Simpson's Adios Paul.
colts are Thorpe Hanover and O'Brien Hanover, both sons of Tar Heel. Thorpe was
so unimpressive as a yearling that all the major stables passed him up in the
1956 sales, and Miller himself bought him (for the bargain price of $5,000),
primarily for eventual breeding purposes. Within a year, however, the respect
that the "made by Miller" tag has earned was again substantiated:
Thorpe, a scary, tender-mouthed youngster at first, became the money-winning
2-year-old champion of 1957, with purses of $60,766. Thus far this season he
has been raced lightly (only three starts), and with, to some observers,
surprisingly poor results, since he has won just one. But it is the opinion
here that if Thorpe is ready, he is unbeatable in his class. And if Miller
believes that this is a colt who must be brought along slowly, he is
O'Brien Hanover is
another story. Smaller and less powerful than Thorpe, he is possibly more
usable. He has started 11 times this season and won six, beating five Messenger
eligibles in Roosevelt's $25,000 Jubilee Pace less than a month ago with the
excellent clocking of 2:02[1/5]. The Miller entry would be odds-on favorites
for the big race if it were not for those superb driving strategists Simpson
and O'Brien who challenge with a formidable trio; all three, however, stimulate
Raider Frost has
truly great speed but only occasionally shows the disposition to use it. This
is a trait which can embarrass even as highly respected a driver as Joe
O'Brien—and already has. In addition, bad luck has dogged Raider all year—like
the time at Laurel recently when a sudden cyclonic wind tore the roof off his
stall and slammed it onto his back. Unbelievably, he was not injured
physically, but the shock did nothing to improve his race-track manners.
potential is also difficult to gauge, for a different reason. Never raced as a
2-year-old because of a debilitating high fever at the start of the 1957
campaign, he has gone to the post seven times this year and won seven times.
But the competition has hardly been top grade, and though the winning habit is
an excellent psychological edge to bring along to a big race, the Messenger
will be Shadow Wave's first real test. If he wins, he will prove himself far
more of a colt than even O'Brien suspects.