On Route 41, just thirty miles west of Philadelphia, are some of the lushest horse pastures north of the Mason-Dixon line. Here in the tiny town of Cochranville, Pa., at 5:30 every morning, Blythe Miller leaves her warm bed, pulls on a pair of muddy riding boots and heads out to the stable to begin another day as the best steeplechase rider—male or female—in the U.S. At 24, Miller is a shy, serious-minded student of steeplechase racing and quick to deny her part in her own success. After a recent win at the Virginia Gold Cup meet, she said it was her horse's "great gallop" that had enabled her to finish first. "To go three miles like that," she said, "and at that pace.... I can't take any of the credit."
In December in Cheltenham, England, she took the steeplechase world by surprise when she rode Lonesome Glory to victory in the fourth leg of the Sport of Kings Challenge, an international five-race series. Lonesome Glory, a 4-year-old gelding and a 20-1 long shot, was the first U.S.-trained 'chaser to win a race over fences on English soil. A month later he won the 1992 Eclipse Award as the best hurdler in North America.
Steeplechasing has long been the bailiwick of the bored and the beautiful, people whose money is as old as the sport itself. Until recently most steeplechase enthusiasts seemed to care more about the quality of their picnics than the quantity of the purses awarded the winners. In fact, many steeplechase meetings still include events in which no prize money is offered, part of the ancient tradition of the "gentleman jockey." In order to compete in those events, Miller has chosen to remain an amateur for the time being, even though she currently ranks first on the National Steeplechase Association's (NSA) races-won list and has earned more than $125,000 in purses so far this year.
The influx of sponsorship money into the sport in the 1980s has given steeple-chasing a broader appeal. Today, at meetings from Geneseo, N.Y., to Warrenville, Ill., you can find more and more minivans and station wagons among the Mercedes Benzes. And with the introduction of parimutuel betting at a few U.S. meetings, there is a growing number of steeplechase railbirds with trifectas, rather than trust funds, on their minds.
About the only thing on Miller's mind is winning. And with her intense concentration and gift for judging the pace of a race, she wins a lot, often by getting the best out of undistinguished mounts. Two weeks ago in the feature of the High Hope Races in Lexington, Ky., Miller's horse, a 10-year-old gelding named Double Bill, beat out Ninepins, the second-leading money winner in '93, by a length. It was only the third time in 11 races since April '92 that Double Bill had won; Miller was aboard for two of those victories. On the NSA's 41-meet circuit of one-day races, she has won 10 times in 33 starts, which makes her the country's leading jump jockey. Her closest competitor, with nine wins, is veteran professional rider Jeff Teter, a three-time winner of top jockey honors.
Blythe was only five years old when she rode in her first fox hunt, accompanying her grandfather Fulmor Miller, who was employed as head huntsman on an estate in Bucks County, Pa. She won her first pony race when she was nine and her first flat race at 16. But Miller is proudest of what she accomplished the day after the biggest meet of her life, the Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville, in which she won four of six races. The next day, May 12, 1991, she graduated from Mount Vernon College, in Washington, D.C., with a degree in interior design, in spite of having struggled all her life with dyslexia. "All those years of school," she says. "I never really thought I could actually do that."
In the rough-and-tumble world of the steeplechase, in which as many as a dozen 1,500-pound horses thunder around a two-to three-mile course, Miller has had her share of falls. Since the start of her steeplechase career, in 1989, she has also had her share of broken bones, including her left hand, her collarbone (twice), her left wrist and both of her thumbs. On more than one occasion she has been knocked unconscious after being thrown. But Miller takes the falls in stride. Her curative? "I take a lot of aspirin," she says.