A memorable first driving win for Atlee Bender

by Rich Fisher

There’s no question Erv Miller is one of the top trainers in harness racing. But when it comes to giving Knute Rockne-type pep talks, he may have to pick up a few tips.

In sending one of his trainers out on his second professional drive at Vernon Downs in New York, Erv wasn’t encouraging Atlee Bender to go out and win one for the Gipper — or even the Bender or the Miller.

“He said, ‘I want you to take your filly (Rockin Winner) up there and I also want you to race the big colt (restricted stakes-winner Jet Airway),” Bender said. “I just started grinning. He said he was sticking his neck out for me when he let me drive that horse. He said ‘Don’t let me down.’”

Bender continued laughing as he told the story, saying, “That made me more nervous than if he’d have said how to drive him. He didn’t tell me how to drive him he just said ‘I’m sticking my neck out for you, don’t let me down.’ Coming from Erv, that’s a little intimidating.”

Atlee Bender won for the first time as a driver when he piloted Jet Airway home in 1:50.4 on July 30 at Vernon Downs.

But it wasn’t debilitating, as Erv’s neck made out just fine after Atlee’s drive became his first win. The 24-year-old from Indiana brought Jet Airway from behind with a :26.2 final quarter-mile to win in 1:50.4 on July 30. Bender got away last in the five-horse field and, at the advice of Erv’s son Marcus Miller, popped the earplugs early around the first turn.

“They were moving out pretty good and he settled in there pretty good,” Bender said. “I was second over past the half, and I just followed that guy around to the last turn and went three wide at the head of the stretch. I was in the middle of the racetrack and won by a length and a half.”

The victory was big on numerous levels, as it was Bender’s first; he didn’t let Erv down; and his family was on hand for the occasion.

“It was awesome,” Bender said. “As I came across I was just thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.’ My mom and dad said they were going to come out and watch. They drove nine hours, so I was happy to win for them being there. That’s pretty sweet.”

So was the phone call he got from Erv shortly afterward.

“He just called and said ‘I don’t need nothing, I just wanted to say congratulations professional,’” Bender said. “He said I did a good job.”

The winner’s circle was crowded following Atlee Bender’s first driving win.

It was a nice payoff for 10 years of hard work.

Bender’s foray into horses came from watching his uncles race ponies as a kid. One uncle began working with Standardbreds, which piqued Atlee’s interest.

“That was my whole life,” Bender said. “I wanted to try the horses.”

He initially helped a friend from his church race ponies and started doing it himself at age 14. He soon bought a pony with family friend Lewayne Miller and continued to drive them as a hobby until age 22.

Miller raced horses at Indiana’s Hoosier Park, where he became friends with Erv Miller (no relation) and began working for him. Weary of his job in a trailer factory, which he had since graduating high school, Bender asked Lewayne if Erv needed help. It turned out he did need someone in Indiana. Bender met Miller at a sale, the two hit it off, and Atlee started working for Erv two years ago, both in Indiana and Florida.

This past year, Miller brought him to his stable in Wind Gap, Pa., making Bender his second trainer. As one would expect, working with a harness racing icon has been invaluable.

“I’ve learned a lot of things,” Bender said. “I didn’t have a lot of experience from the harness racing aspect. It’s the same concept as ponies, but he does his stuff a lot different. He taught me a lot, how to set a horse up as far as rigging, training-wise and driving. He taught me a lot about how to drive horses.

“He’s always trying to teach you to do better. He’ll harp on you a little bit, but that’s just for good intentions to make you better. He really wants you to succeed and get the most out of every horse you drive. He emphasizes that every horse is different, and you can’t drive them all the same. He really taught me a lot as far as the driving aspect.”

Miller felt Bender learned his lessons well enough to give him a shot with Jet Airway, who had strong 2- and 3-year-old campaigns, winning 10 of 30 races including four divisions of the Ontario Sire Stakes and earning $371,555, before being limited to four starts last year.

“He broke down a little bit,” Bender said. “We just started him back and he’s pretty sound now.”

Atlee began qualifying horses for Miller last year and the trainer rewarded him with that now memorable drive. Bender said he had no time to get nervous, as it was only he and one groom on hand at Vernon Downs. Atlee had to race Jet Airway in the second race; and the horse he owns, Rockin Winner, in race five (he is part owner of two other horses with Lewayne Miller).

“We were kind of pushed for time, so I didn’t have much time to get nervous,” Bender said. “I was warming up Rockin Winner, I got off the track and jumped on Jet Airway, so I wasn’t nervous.”

Fotowon photos
Bender drove Jet Airway to a career-best 1:49.2 triumph on Aug. 13 at Vernon.

Bender finished fourth with Rockin Winner. Two weeks later, he drove Jet Airway to a second victory in a career-best 1:49.2 over a sloppy track in the Open/Preferred at Vernon.

Once again, Bender got away last in the five-horse race.

“The horse that beat us the previous week got away fourth,” Atlee said. “He pulled second over, and just followed him. In the turn he went three wide, I followed him and at the head of the stretch I tipped four wide and we were side by side for the stretch and I pulled away. I looked over at the time and I saw (1):49.2. My eyes just got all big and I started smiling.”

Bender has evidently earned his trainer’s trust. He has two more races Friday at Harrah’s Philadelphia and another two Saturday at Tioga Downs. Atlee’s dream is to become a fulltime driver but he said if that doesn’t come to pass, he would be happy to train horses. Either way, it beats the trailer factory.

“I like it a lot better,” he said. “I’ve never woke up and said ‘I have to go to work.’ I want to go to work. I want to be with horses instead of doing the same thing over and over.”

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