The Buckeye State driver talks about his top performers
His personal pedigree is filled with harness racing affiliations, so it’s certainly no surprise that Ohio native David Miller decided to join the family business of earning his living holding the reins.
He first demonstrated his driving skills in his native state at the county fairs and at Eldorado Scioto Downs. Two decades ago, he went east in search of bigger worlds to conquer and conquer them he has. His career bankroll now stands at more than $237 million in purse money earned and more than 12,800 wins. With only a few exceptions, he’s been a $10-million man in the sulky since 2001.
Known widely to many as simply “The Buckeye,” Miller is justly proud of winning five Little Brown Jugs, including last year’s Jug with Courtly Choice. After all, the famed soup-bowl track at Delaware, Ohio, is just up Route 23 from his birthplace in Columbus. He won his first in 2003 behind No Pan Intended, part of that colt’s Triple Crown sweep. He followed with victories driving Shadow Play, Big Bad John, Betting Line and Courtly Choice.
Miller, now 54, has won countless major stakes in harness racing and has driven the co-fastest mile ever when he steered Always B Miki to a 1:46 mile in 2016. Voted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2013, he recently took time to discuss Shebestingin, No Pan Intended and several other stars that he’s driven with former Hoof Beats Executive Editor Dean A. Hoffman in part two of this two-part series.
I watched him when Homer Hochstetler raced him in the Matron at Dover as a 2-year-old. He got away seventh and circled the field three-deep at the half. I was real impressed by that.
Jimmy Takter bought him for $1 million right after that race, so I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. I picked up the drive when Kadabra was a 3-year-old.
Kadabra was a very, very smart horse, along with his speed and gameness. You knew he was a smart horse just by looking at him.
Kadabra would stand in the winner’s circle after a race as long as necessary, and whenever a photographer pointed a camera at him, he’d prick his ears.
He was so was naturally gaited and basically a freak since he doesn’t have a fancy pedigree.
To compete at the top level, a horse generally needs to have the athletic ability and also the mental ability to know what’s expected of him. Kadabra knew what he had do. He was such a cool horse.
In the 2002 World Trotting Derby, however, he wasn’t so good. In the first heat, he lost to Like A Prayer by a nose. In the second heat, I was coming first-over with Kadabra in the last turn and he hit a knee. He never even wore knee boots but hit his knee so hard that his head dropped and disappeared for a moment. He’d tripped himself and stumbled. It all happened so quickly, but Kadabra came up trotting. And he still finished fourth.
Kadabra rebounded and won the Canadian Trotting Derby. I was leaving hard in the race and Andover Hall was leaving from the outside with Rotation leaving hard from the inside.
We went into the first turn pretty hard and both Andover and Rotation took off running. I got to the rail and saw that Like A Prayer was sitting right on my back. The breakers were well behind me, but I still had to deal with Like A Prayer.
The fractions were pretty easy—:30.1 for the second quarter—and at the top of the stretch Kadabra just trotted away from Like A Prayer and won easily.
Kadabra had such an intelligent head and eye. He was always aware of what was going on around him. Such a smart horse, a real professional.
He was the first good horse I got to drive when I moved from Ohio to New Jersey in 1999.
Magician was in to go one night at The Meadowlands in the Open trot, and Brian Allen was down to drive. He couldn’t make it, so I picked up the drive. I didn’t know much about Magician other than the fact that he’d been a darn good New York Sire Stakes horse the previous year.
As I waited to drive him, I saw grooms running him out with lead shanks. Trainer Earl Cruise told me, “Grab the lines and get on. Don’t let him stop.”
The outrider took Magician by his head and moved him along, but the funny thing is that Magician wasn’t doing anything wrong. He won that night and I got to keep the drive on him.
Magician was a real professional in a race. He will always have a special place in my heart because he established me at the Meadowlands. I’d been getting some drives and I was hoping to stick it out, but Magician came along and sure helped me.
I began to hear horror stories that Magician was still on a third line when he shipped north as a 2-year-old.
Magician never gave me a problem. I think he was just a nervous horse. He wore an ear hood his entire life.
One of the first things I noticed is that Magician wore four aluminum shoes. Most trotters need some weight. He only made one break when I drove him and that was my fault when I hit a wheel. Magician was very good-gaited.
No horse was tougher than Magician. I recall he was in the Nat Ray at the Meadowlands after being so sick, he was in a vet clinic earlier that week. Earl Cruise got him out of the clinic, and he finished fourth in the Nat Ray. Magician was an iron horse.
He raced against Moni Maker often, and when she raced there were always photographers and an entourage around her. Moni Maker had earned it. Then the old gelding Magician would go out and beat her.
I remember Magician winning the Maple Leaf Trot in 2000. Moni Maker and a couple others left fast. The early fractions were pretty hot—:25.4 to the quarter—and I came first-over against Moni Maker. Magician was able to put her away in 1:52.3. In fairness, Moni Maker was coming to the end of her career and Magician was just starting to show his greatness.
In the Breeders Crown in 2000, Magician was second-over and then I moved three-wide and I was able to get Magician back to the rail. Moni Maker was following us, but Magician opened up a couple lengths on her entering the stretch and beat her by three lengths.
That was my first Breeders Crown win and the purse was $1 million. That whole experience to me was just unbelievable.
No Pan Intended
I’ve always called him my Cinderella horse.
I had no idea who he was when I first drove him in mid-May 2003. He was in a non-winners of two at the Meadowlands and he was second.
I told his owner Bob Glazer, “I love this horse. He’s great-gaited and just a little Cadillac.”
No Pan Intended won his next two in 1:53.2 and 1:52 and that earned him a chance in the Meadowlands Pace.
I had driven a colt named Allamerican Theory in the North America Cup earlier that season. He won his elim and was a close fourth in the final.
So, I got the drive on Allamerican Theory in the Meadowlands Pace elim and he won for me.
I drove No Pan Intended and he finished second in his elim. I told Des Tackoor, the trainer of Allamerican Theory, that I was going with No Pan Intended in the Meadowlands Pace final.
“Are you crazy?” he asked.
I must have seemed crazy at the time because Allamerican Theory won the Meadowlands Pace for Mike Lachance and No Pan Intended was a stopping fourth-place finisher.
I admit that I was pretty sick driving home that night. I’d just given up the drive on the Meadowlands Pace winner. I’m sure Des Tackoor wasn’t the only person who thought I was crazy.
But it proved to be a smart move in the long run. After the Meadowlands Pace, No Pan Intended lost only one race the rest of the 2003 season. My decision to stick with him was proven right.
Glazer used to tell me, “You’re a genius.”
Trainer Ivan Sugg gets a lot of credit for keeping the colt so good all season.
In the Art Rooney at Yonkers, No Pan Intended won his elimination and got post 8 in the final. There was an entry in the race consisting of Brooklyn Hanover and The Globe. The entry mates were first and second the entire race and I had to come first-over before the half. I was getting to them on the outside as we came into the stretch and Brooklyn Hanover came out into No Pan Intended. Brooklyn Hanover was taken down by the judges and No Pan Intended was placed first.
After the Rooney, No Pan Intended started three times at Freehold and that was really a turning point for him. He got really sharp.
In the Cane final at Freehold, Allamerican Native was the big favorite and yet my colt just rolled right past him to win. I told Bob after the Cane that we were going to win the Jug.
No Pan Intended drew post 3 in his Jug heat and caught a break in his elimination when Iced Yankee made a break leaving, and that scattered the field a bit. That allowed me to get to the front. If he had stayed pacing, it wouldn’t have been quite so easy.
Drawing the rail in the Jug final made the race a lot easier. I got to the quarter in 28 seconds and the half in :57.1 and there was no catching No Pan Intended off those fractions.
No Pan Intended won on all size tracks. He was a handy horse and got around the turns very well. He was solid and consistent.
People would say, “This crop is a weak bunch.” I hated that. They said No Pan Intended wound up being Horse of the Year, but he didn’t really beat anyone. That was just sour grapes to me.
He raced 21 times, won 17 races and was second three times. Not many horses can do that against the best.
No Pan Intended won 13 of his last 14 races his last season and was second the one time he got beat. He was really sharp for a long time. He was usually the odds-on favorite.
By the end of the season, No Pan Intended was simply the best. When he won the Messenger final in October, he paced the second quarter in :30.1. That win gave him the Triple Crown, and I admit that I appreciate the Triple Crown more now than when he won it.
Going two heats doesn’t bother some horses. No Pan Intended and Shadow Play were two horses that loved heats. Heats made them way tougher, but among my other Jug winners I’d say that heat racing hurt Big Bad John and Courtly Choice.
In the James B. Dancer at Freehold after the Messenger, No Pan Intended drew post 10 in the second tier. That’s not good on a half-mile track and No Pan Intended got away badly. I moved him three-wide, going past the half and he was still three-wide in the final turn. He got up to win by almost two lengths. That was a huge trip because he was all over the track and still drew away.
No Pan Intended won his Breeders Crown elimination and that gave us the chance to pick his post in the final. I told Ivan that I wanted post 3.
Ivan thought I was crazy and said we should take the rail. But the rail is not always the best place to start at the Meadowlands. I remember John Campbell telling me that when I first moved to New Jersey. Too many other drivers outside you will leave, and a horse leaving from the rail is likely to get trapped in.
So, we picked post two. I was just trying to be the last one to the lead. Ron Pierce won the other elimination with Pronger and he took post 3.
I got to the lead down the backstretch and then I had to fight off Pierce and Pronger.
No Pan Intended had a big lead coming in the stretch, and in mid-stretch I looked back and saw Roger Mayotte coming 100 mph with Escape The Wind.
I didn’t look back anymore because I just went to work on my horse. No Pan Intended held on by a head. If Roger had been closer, he would have won by two lengths.
No Pan Intended earned Horse of the Year honors.
Pizza Dolce had the most sheer speed of any trotter I’ve ever driven.
I first sat behind her in a baby race at the Meadowlands around the beginning of August. Brett Pelling trained her, and she finished second.
Her first purse start was at Hoosier Park about 10 days later. She drew outside and I took her back and sat sixth with her. She wasn’t grabby and was real sensible. She would edge out a bit from behind the horse in front and then back in. She was just waiting for me to pull on the right line.
I waited until the top of the stretch and tipped her. Pizza Dolce zoomed by the other fillies in just a few steps with a final quarter in :27.1. I was astonished at what she’d done.
Along with that speed, however, came her biggest problem. It was at the start. She was fine as long as she was walking, but once she started trotting she wanted to go full speed. She would often run at the start, then catch the field and win. She got so wound up, and never really got over that.
She went some huge miles to overcome her miscues. She was the fastest trotter I’ve ever driven but certainly one of the most challenging to drive. I even went to Brett and told him that I wasn’t getting along with her, and that I’d understand if he wanted to get someone else to drive her. He yelled at me because he thought I wanted to take off a top filly, but I said I’d continue driving her. But she was a challenge.
In the Kentucky Futurity Filly as a 3-year-old, Pizza Dolce won the first heat easy in 1:52.4. As we were going to the track for the second heat, Brett said, “If anything goes wrong, just pull her up. Just stop her.” He knew that we’d then have a race-off and he didn’t want me to use the filly hard trying to catch the field.
Sure enough, she made a break leaving the second heat. I was trying to get her under control. She got back trotting and she wanted to go 1,000 mph. But she was way back.
When we came out for the third heat race-off, John Campbell was driving Southwind Flanders and Ron Pierce had Armbro Affair. Starter Greg Coon called us to the gate and we let our fillies walk slowly toward it. I think that John and Ronnie thought if they delayed a bit that Pizza Dolce would blow up. But Pizza Dolce was fine as long as she was walking.
Greg was getting impatient and said through the speaker, “C’mon on with them!” I think Greg called us three times to the gate.
I was able to time the gate just right and Pizza Dolce went to the lead past the quarter. She drew away in the stretch and the fans were clapping for her as she trotted by herself to the wire. I got a big thrill out of that. And Pizza Dolce deserved that applause. She trotted in 1:53.1 in a third heat race-off.
I know that many people don’t like heat racing today, but I don’t think that racing two heats is bad at all. It’s three heats that can really affect a horse, and Pizza Dolce is one example.
I first drove him in early July when he was a 3-year-old in a Pennsylvania Sire Stake at Pocono from post nine. I wound up getting him parked—and parked through hard fractions of :26.2, :53.2 and 1:21. He cleared to the front coming into the stretch, but got beat by horses that sat on his back.
After that effort, I said, “Wow. That was unbelievable.”
A couple weeks later I drove him at The Meadows. He drew outside but was the even-money favorite in a sire stake race. I maybe got a bit too cute with him because I tried to go as slow as possible. I got to the half in :55.4 and some horses came out from behind him and brushed by him. Shadow Play made a break.
Next was the Adios and I decided not to go too slow with him. I got him to the front in :53.3 and we kept rolling and he won his elim in 1:48.2. Once again, I said, “Wow.” Then he came back and won the Adios final.
I had a hard time getting Shadow Play tired. He paced a lot of tough trips and never faltered.
In his Jug elimination, I sat in the two hole and he got up to win in 1:50. That was a huge trip and his last quarter was timed in :26.1.
But things went bad after that. Dr. Ian Moore trained him, and he thought he might have a hoof wall that separated, a quarter crack or an abscess. He wasn’t sure. But Shadow Play wouldn’t put weight on his foot.
A local blacksmith named Eric Wilks put a rim pad on Shadow Play and cut the pad right where the abscess seemed to be.
As I took Shadow Play to the track for the Jug final, Doc Moore said to me, “If he takes one bad step, bring him back to the paddock.” He was prepared to scratch him.
But when they checked Shadow Play up, he stepped off sound and won the Jug final by more than six lengths in 1:50.1 off an opening half in :56.1.
After the final, Shadow Play could barely make it back to the paddock. That had to be one of the grittiest performances I’ve ever seen.
The next day Shadow Play could hardly walk. They tubbed and poulticed him. That weekend an abscess blew out.
He then raced against Somebeachsomewhere in the Messenger at Yonkers on a terrible, rainy night. I cut the mile and Beach came to me on the outside approaching the half-mile. Beach almost blew the third turn. He took a couple bad steps and ran out.
I thought then that we might have a chance, so when we got to the last turn, I stepped on the gas to see if Beach would have problems again. But he went right with me and beat Shadow Play by a neck.
Shadow Play was certainly one of the toughest horses I was ever around.
When I raced Always B Miki, a guy asked, “He’s the fastest horse you’ve ever sat behind, right?”
I surprised him by saying, “No. Shebestingin is the fastest horse I’ve ever driven.”
Always B Miki was a great horse, but I think if you matched the two for speed over an eighth of a mile, Sting would beat him. Right off the bat, you could tell she was something special. Joe Holloway trained her and had high expectations for her.
At 2, she won at Tioga in 1:53.4 by six lengths. In the winner’s circle, people were gathering around for the photo and they threw a cooler on her. She reared straight up in the air. She broke a tibia when she landed, and that was the end of her season.
She came back the next year sound. Sting was amazing. I’ve never been around a horse that could get in gear in one step and go as fast as she did. That was always an edge for me as a driver. I didn’t have to hustle her off the gate because I knew when I clucked to her, she’d pace right past whoever was on the lead. She loved to pass horses and had one huge move. If I could save that move for the right time, she would just explode off cover.
I went to Gaitway Farm and trained her once for Joe Holloway. I admit I’m not a trainer and I’m not known for reading a watch that well. I was supposed to go between 1:51 and 1:52.
So I get to the quarter in 32 or 33 seconds. I’m sure that Joe Holloway was watching me and wondering what was going on. But I wound up going a mile around 1:51 with her. I think I went the next three quarters in :27, :26 and :26.
Sting could just fly. But she had problems tying up, and that hurt her in some big races. She put it all together at Lexington the day she paced in 1:47, making her the fastest female ever in harness racing. That surprised a lot of people, but not me and certainly not Joe Holloway. We always knew what she could do.
When Sting was on her game, she was by far the fastest horse I’ve ever driven.
What The Hill
I picked up the drive on him after the elims for the Peter Haughton Memorial in 2016. Ron Burke trained the colt and Tim Tetrick had qualified him in the elim for the Peter Haughton, but Tim opted to drive King On The Hill in the final. I was the fifth driver What The Hill had in his first five starts.
In the Peter Haughton final, I got What The Hill in the two hole early, sat with him, and won in 1:54.4.
I was walking back to the winner’s circle with Shannon Murphy, the second trainer for Ron Burke, and I said, “Jeez, Murph, I can’t believe you can’t keep a driver on him.”
The rest of his 2-year-old season, I had a hard time getting him to stay flat. He jumped in the Wellwood at Mohawk and then again at Lexington. He did manage to get fourth in the Breeders Crown and the Valley Victory.
What The Hill wore trotting hobbles and you can drive a hobbled trotter more aggressively than you can one that doesn’t wear hobbles. There is security there, especially with a young horse.
When a trotter wears hobbles, you don’t have to be quite so careful.
As a 3-year-old, What The Hill looked gorgeous and filled out. He stayed at the Meadowlands and he was much sounder than he’d been as a 2-year-old. He was second in the Dancer Memorial and then won the Reynolds.
He drew the rail in his Hambo elim and went off at 2-1. He got away third and I moved him to the front down the backstretch. He led around the last turn and then just came up empty in the stretch. He wound up fourth.
When I pulled up, Ronnie Burke said, “He was horrible. We have to make some changes.”
Ronnie made a decision to pull all four of the colt’s shoes and take off the trotting hobbles. He’d worn those steel shoes—half-rounds in front and swedges behind—and the hobbles his entire life. And Ronnie wanted to change them going for a million bucks in the final? I thought that was crazy.
I thought maybe Ronnie could make one change for the final, but not both.
So I said to Ronnie, “Come on, man, don’t do that. This horse has worn hobbles and those shoes his entire life.”
But when I watched the elim replay, I noticed What The Hill was trotting straight up and down in front. He was wasting a lot of motion.
So, Ronnie took off the hobbles and put four aluminum shoes on What The Hill. And we were going for $1 million in the final. That’s gutsy, real gutsy. At the time, I thought it was crazy.
Two other trainers who would make drastic changes like that are Chuck Sylvester and Jimmy Takter. Great trainers just have the confidence to know what to do.
The changes made a huge difference in What The Hill. When I scored him down for the Hambo final, he trotted better than he ever had in his life.
So, in the final, I got away behind Perfect Spirit and sat in. Riding outside of me was Guardian Angel As, a more than 55-1 shot who’d started from post nine. I thought I was sitting perfectly because I figured Guardian Angel As would die off and I would get out in the stretch.
We all know the controversy over what happened in the homestretch. I came out from behind Perfect Spirit, who was bearing out, and I got squeezed because Guardian Angel As was coming in. He hit my wheel and broke.
What The Hill trotted on and won the Hambo. I was thrilled because, of course, I’d always wanted to win the Hambletonian.
There was an inquiry. The replay shows that I had room to get out. But Perfect Spirit in front of me was bearing out and Guardian Angel As was coming down on me. He hit my wheel. I didn’t hit Guardian Angel As. He hit me.
But the judges didn’t see it that way and we lost the appeals. It’s history.
What The Hill deserved to win the race. His owners, trainer and groom deserved it. They were so excited for the five minutes after the race when he was the winner but then they were heartbroken. To get taken down in the Hambletonian was so discouraging. That was the longest ride I ever took back to the paddock.
On the way home that night, I had a couple beers to see if my disappointment would go away. It never did. Even later in the year, when What The Hill won the Breeders Crown, my feelings about the Hambo didn’t go away. If he’d won the Hambo, I think he would have been Horse of the Year.
After the 2017 Hambo, they found that What The Hill had an entrapped epiglottis and did some trimming on him, as I recall. He got some time off and qualified great at Harrah’s and then went to Canada for the Canadian Trotting Classic. He wasn’t so good in his elim, but he was just great when he won the final.
At Lexington the first week, What The Hill was a runaway. As soon as they checked him up for the parade, he was gone. He took off in front of the grandstand, went around the first turn, and I had a hard time stopping him. I finally got him to the outrider.
He was the same in the race. He went to the half in 54 seconds and then stopped in the stretch.
Now we come into the Kentucky Futurity and the track was terrible. He won his elim by a neck and then was fourth in the final. It was a miserable day.
Then we went to Hoosier for the Breeders Crown. He got a nice trip in the elim and won.
In the final, I got the two hole behind Lindy The Great and he took me a long way. What The Hill didn’t come off Lindy The Great’s back until halfway through the stretch and my colt won easily.
I thought the Breeders Crown would be his last race, but he was ninth in the Erskine and fourth in the Matron before Ronnie entered him in the TVG. I wondered how What The Hill would do against older horses.
He drew post 5 and the inside horses couldn’t leave much, so I got to the front and got covered by Crazy Wow. What The Hill loved that two-hole trip. He won the TVG and, in fact, won most of his races from a two-hole trip.
Ron Burke is just amazing at getting a horse ready for a race. His horses never miss a day training. As Ronnie often says, “It’s all in the conditioning.”
Dean A. Hoffman is a former executive editor of Hoof Beats. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.