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Shrewdest Rube Around
Ernest Havemann
July 29, 1974
Del Miller is a jovial fixture on the world harness racing scene: driver, trainer, owner and breeder—but at 61 there is no frost at all on this bumpkin
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July 29, 1974

Shrewdest Rube Around

Del Miller is a jovial fixture on the world harness racing scene: driver, trainer, owner and breeder—but at 61 there is no frost at all on this bumpkin

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In the rolling farmlands of western Pennsylvania there lives a bald-headed little fellow with a constant apologetic grin on his moon-shaped face, who looks the living image of everything rural and unsophisticated. A big-city slicker, driving through with a suitcase full of watered-down securities or shares in the Brooklyn Bridge, would jam on the brakes, sure that he had found the perfect mark.

Stranger, forget it. The innocent rube you've spotted just happens to be Delvin Miller, who ranks with the shrewdest men adorning the American sports scene. Delvin Miller is a top harness driver, also a top trainer, owner and breeder. He started trotting rings around other drivers, many of them decades older than he, when he was in his teens; and he can still do it at 61.

Whether in stocks, bonds or horseflesh. Miller knows the wheat from the chaff. At the moment, for example, he is half owner of the best trotting mare now racing—Delmonica Hanover, winner of over half a million dollars in races that include the last two Roosevelt Internationals and France's Prix d'Amerique. Guess what farmer Miller and his partner paid for her at a yearling sale in 1970. Would you believe $5,000?

To be sure, there remains a lot of the country boy in Miller (at right, with his wife Mary Lib). He walks, talks and often dresses like the product of a one-room school. He peers at the world in wonderment from behind his old-fashioned eyeglasses. But he gets around. You might run into Miller in New York's 21 or Paris' Tour d'Argent; you can always recognize him because he is the one who looks as if he is having the time of his life, which he has been for lo these many years.

The expansion of sport has produced a lot of athlete-millionaires. But most of them tend to be blas�; way back in college the Joe Namaths and Wilt Chamberlains figured it was their due to become rich and famous. Delvin Miller never even knew he was an athlete. He was a skinny, rather bow-legged kid who weighed less than 125 pounds after he reached his full height (5'5"). He got into harness racing when a horse had to compete in as many as four hot and dusty heats to win 50% of a purse of $200. His wildest ambition was to equal the success of Doc Parshall, one of the best drivers of the late '20s and '30s, who was rumored to be making around $20,000 a year.

Thus everything that has happened to Miller—his own development as a trainer-driver, the growth of harness purses from $200 to as much as $200,000—has come as a glorious surprise. That bemused expression on his face is the reflection of an inner man still halfway convinced that he will soon wake up and find it was a crazy dream.

Of all the sport world's millionaires, Miller well may be the happiest. He did not take up golf seriously until he was 50; now he belongs to five country clubs scattered from Pennsylvania to Florida. Among his golfing companions are Arnold Palmer and Lou Worsham, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, as well as innumerable business tycoons. As a young man, Miller considered himself rather daring to venture with his stable from his home base, Avella, Pa., to the faraway town of Flint, Mich. in a truck that served as sleeping quarters and kitchen as well as horse transport. Now he travels in style all over the world; he has driven—usually with conspicuous success—in such places as Australia, New Zealand, France, Sweden and Rhodesia.

In the winter Miller trains his horses in Florida, where he lives in not just one oceanfront condominium but two converted into a single unit by knocking out a wall. The merger has given Miller and Mary Lib three bedrooms, a large den, four bathrooms and a living room the size of a skating rink. The second kitchen is converted into a bar that has become a showcase for Miller's fondness for nostalgia. On display are antique penny banks, an ancient Edison phonograph, slathers of Currier & Ives prints and scores of silver trophies won by Miller's horses in 45 years of racing. Miller loves old things and new.

In the summer Miller is the master of Meadow Lands Farm, 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, where he lives in a handsome old brick house (14 rooms, four baths and too many Currier & Ives prints and racing trophies to count) in the middle of 360 acres of rich pastureland. Miller can roam around admiring the broodmares and their foals in the fields, or work the young horses over his training track. He can catch a bass for dinner in his pond. He can indulge his fancy for early Americana by driving over to nearby Meadowcroft Village, his pet project, and joining the steady stream of visitors who have come to admire its authentic old covered bridge, log houses, general store, schoolhouse and carriage house filled with buggies, stagecoaches and 18th and 19th century sulkies. Meadowcroft Village stands on 200 acres of land that once were part of the family farm, and the buildings and memorabilia were collected in the surrounding countryside. The village, run now by his brother as a nonprofit foundation, is a gift from Miller to all fellow nostalgia buffs.

In the evening Miller can leave his house and within five minutes be at The Meadows racetrack, of which he is president and part owner. The Meadows is a handsome, well-kept, five-eighths-mile oval with a model stable area that Miller himself designed to provide ideal accommodations for the harness horsemen who race there from March through October. Every summer it is the scene of a week of Grand Circuit racing that includes the Adios Pace, which will be run this year on Aug. 10 for a purse of $100,000. This occasion, Adios Week, is the high spot of Miller's year, the Pike's Peak of all the Rocky Mountains that make up his annual schedule. His friends pour in from near and far for the racing, a barn dance, a celebrity golf tournament and an amateur driving contest. Last year tyro Mickey Mantle managed to beat more experienced Whitey Ford in a match race. A good time was had by all, especially Miller.

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