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A nice guy to finish first
Jeremiah Tax
June 30, 1958
One way or another, trotting's biggest prize should fall to Del Miller. Either his own entry or a colt sired by his million-dollar stallion, Adios, is the likely winner
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June 30, 1958

A Nice Guy To Finish First

One way or another, trotting's biggest prize should fall to Del Miller. Either his own entry or a colt sired by his million-dollar stallion, Adios, is the likely winner

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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.

Large statements 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.

Sheer horsemanship 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.

Miller's career, 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.

Miller's Messenger 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 undoubtedly right.

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 some doubt.

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.

Shadow Wave's 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.

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