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 $236 million in purse money earned and more than 12,700 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 Always B Miki and several other stars that he’s driven with former Hoof Beats Executive Editor Dean A. Hoffman in part one of this two-part series.
Always B Miki
Miki was just amazing. He’s by far the most talented horse I’ve ever been around.
I drove him in his first baby race, and he was such a big colt—probably 17 hands tall and not very filled out. He won in 1:56.1, last half in 55 seconds, last quarter in :27.1. I told trainer Joe Holloway afterward that I was amazed how easy he did it. Miki later went to Indiana and other guys were driving him. I think he got to hitting a knee there.
I started driving him again as a 3-year-old. In the Meadowlands Pace, he drew post position nine and he wound up four deep around the first turn, and three deep the rest of the mile. Still, he was second to He’s Watching in 1:47.1, beaten by a couple lengths, and they charted his final quarter in :25.3.
Miki went some amazing races in his career, but the Meadowlands Pace might have been the best.
Later that year, when I paraded him in the Breeders Crown final, he seemed lame. I thought, “Oh, my God. What do I do now?” I stepped him up a bit and he seemed to come out of it. But when I slowed up Miki, he took a bad step and came up on three legs.
Joe Holloway came onto the track and asked what was wrong and I said, “I’m pretty sure he broke something.”
That was so hard to watch because I knew how good Miki was. They think he might’ve kicked the wall in his stall before the race and cracked his pastern.
So that was the end of his 3-year-old season. Dr. Patty Hogan put four screws in his pastern and said that he would be OK, but I was afraid Miki might be done. You just never know how a horse will come back.
He switched barns to Jimmy Takter for his 4-year-old season and in the spring of 2015, he cracked the other hind pastern during a training mile. He got four screws in that one, too.
Jimmy drove him in qualifiers at Pocono and Lexington in September. He paced in 1:48.2 at Red Mile with a final quarter in :26.4, so he was ready. Jimmy won at Hoosier with him in 1:49 and I got on him for the Breeders Crown at Woodbine. The only rigging Jimmy changed was putting a headpole on Miki.
Miki was humongous when I drove him in the fall. He was still tall, but he had grown into his body. He was sound and just an amazing horse. He won the Breeders Crown easily in 1:49.3 at Woodbine and finished his season by winning the American-National in 1:49.1.
Miki’s 5-year-old season in 2016 was amazing. He had some terrific battles with Wiggle It Jiggleit, and it was never easy to beat Wiggle It. Miki wasn’t a horse that could just stomp off the gate, but he could carry his speed a long way. He was probably at his best off cover because he could motor home so good. He loved to pass horses.
On Hambo Day in 2016, he was the 1-2 favorite in the U.S. Pacing Championship and he drew post three. There was a lot of talk about Miki breaking the world record. Every time he won, people would ask, “When’s he going to break the world record?” So I decided to end all those questions in the U.S. Pacing Championship.
He’d been so sharp. Before I paraded him for the U.S. Pacing Championship, I told Jimmy that I was going for the world record.
That was a mistake. The track wasn’t really that fast that day. I drove right past the two-hole down the backstretch. I could’ve sat on Wiggle It’s back, but I drove on and Miki got tired and finished fourth. I take the blame for that loss. He’d been off for three weeks and he wasn’t at his best. It was a bad move on my part.
I had to go to Canada to drive Betting Line and my cousin Brett Miller drove Miki in the Jim Ewart Memorial at Scioto on a stormy night. I told Brett that Miki would be perfect, and that he appreciates a trip, but you can drive him any way. I watched the race on the monitors from Mohawk. Wiggle It went to the front and Brett got away fourth with Miki. Brett went after Wiggle It before the half. They paced a third quarter in 26 seconds. It was a helluva duel between two great pacers and Miki got up by three-quarters of a length in 1:47.
I wasn’t sure I was going to get the drive back on Miki after that because some people were upset with me.
But I got to drive Miki in his next race at Hoosier and he won in 1:48.2 over Freaky Feet Pete.
At the end of September, Miki raced in the Dayton Derby, and I’d driven five or six races early in the card. The front end wasn’t holding up. It was a cold, windy night. There was a horse in our race named Luck Be Withyou and he grabbed the front and paced the opening half in :54.4. I kept Miki covered but Montrell fell right in behind me with Wiggle It. I got past Luck Be Withyou, but Wiggle It came on in the stretch and got me.
From there, we went to Lexington for the Allerage and the goal was to go for the world record of 1:46.1. The day came up good. The temperature was in the mid-60s.
I wanted Miki to reach the half in :52 and the three-quarters in 1:18 to aim at a mile in 1:45. Jimmy warmed him up, and said Miki was jumping some shadows around the far turn at Lexington. One owner told me before the race not to go for the world record with him. He said Jimmy didn’t want him on the front end, and that I should just concentrate on winning the race.
I was OK with that. I didn’t want Miki jumping shadows. When I saw Miki before the race, he was wearing a shadow roll. I remembered that when Joe Holloway had Miki, he always wore a shadow roll.
Miki was fine scoring down and I sat in third for the first quarter, then moved him. Scott Zeron had Shamballa in the race and he was carrying Miki a bit and we got to the half in :52.2. I cleared and got Miki snugged up a bit, and we only got to the three-quarters in 1:19.4, much slower than I’d planned for a record mile. At that point, I was hoping Miki would hold on and win because Shamballa was tight on my back.
When the time of 1:46 flashed up, I almost fell off the bike.
Actually, I think if Shamballa had pressed Miki a bit more in the third quarter, we might have been there in 1:19 flat; then Miki would’ve paced in 1:45.
Miki won the last three races of his career at The Meadowlands and I give Jimmy and his team all the credit for keeping him sound and sharp. Miki had an ankle and a knee that bugged him, but Jimmy did such a great job with him. The last three races of that season were the soundest Miki had been all year.
Miki’s retirement was an emotional moment for me. He was such an amazing horse. Driving him was very, very special. I just loved and admired that horse. Some horses will go one great race, but Miki went great races over and over and over again.
I drove Betting Line nine times and he won all nine races. Amazing.
Betting Line’s first big win for me was the North America Cup. He got away fifth and they went at it pretty hard in the middle half and got to the three-quarters in 1:20.3. Control The Moment had parked Lyons Snyder, with Racing Hill right behind Control The Moment. Then Racing Hill backed out of the two hole and moved outside and Lyons Snyder dropped to the inside.
I had been second over and now I was third over. Control The Moment opened up several lengths and I was sitting back there thinking that everything went to hell in about 10 steps. My position went from very good to “oh, no.”
Racing Hill collared Control The Moment in the stretch but I was moving with Betting Line.
As soon as I tipped Betting Line off cover, I knew he was going to win. He went into flight and won in 1:47.4.
That was my first North America Cup and that was maybe my biggest thrill since winning my first Jug.
He wasn’t in the Meadowlands Pace and trainer Casie Coleman wanted to aim for the Jug, so she sent him to Northfield to give him some experience on a half-miler. It rained all day and the Northfield track was like cement.
I got away third and pulled him. I was just riding outside with him, but he was getting on the right line badly. As he went into the last turn, Betting Line was getting crooked and then took off running.
I turned my head to see if I could get him to the outside, but when I turned my head back he was pacing again. He won by four lengths. There was an inquiry, but his number stayed up.
Casie made some rigging changes after that race and he was great by the time we got to Delaware. He won his elim in 1:50.4 and the final by eight lengths in 1:49. He was just jogging. That’s still the Jug record.
Casie thought about a time trial at Lexington, but he was having some issues then. He won an Ontario Sire [Stakes] event and came to the Meadowlands for the Breeders Crown.
The damnedest thing happened to him there. They said he got bitten twice by a brown recluse spider that was in a blanket they tossed on him. He was dragging his leg and got sick from it. He had two huge holes with puss just running out of them. It was unbelievable. That ended his career.
I drove her in her first baby race at Chester in June 2015, and beforehand trainer Jim Campbell said, “I think this is a pretty nice filly.”
He was right. She won in 1:58.4 by more than 14 lengths, and I told Jim, “I will go anywhere she’s racing to drive her.”
She was that impressive. She raced 46 times in her career, and I drove her every start except two. She battled through a lot of sickness and lameness, but always showed up on race day.
She had tons of ability. In her first few starts, I was saying “whoa” the entire mile. She would follow another horse, but when I pulled her she wanted to go. In that first baby race, she trotted into the last turn at Chester so fast that I didn’t think she’d stay trotting through the turn, but she did.
She won her elim for the Jim Doherty in 1:53.3 by 3½ lengths and that was by far the best race she ever went in her life. She was strong and sound that night. In the final, she won by a nose in 1:54.2.
I learned after the Doherty final that she had a problem that week and spent a day or two in the clinic. She was sure game in the final.
At Lexington in the fall of 2016, she was the favorite in the Bluegrass the week before the Kentucky Filly Futurity, but made a break. Her feet were bothering her, and she was sticking behind when she trotted.
So for the Filly Futurity, Jim pulled her hind shoes and she was a completely differently-gaited filly. She got over the track so good and took her lifetime mark of 1:51.1. I told Jim that she hadn’t been that sharp since the Jim Doherty elim more than a year earlier. She won the second heat in 1:51.2, winning both heats by open lengths.
She then won her Breeders Crown elim after a first-over trip and won the final easily.
Broadway Donna had to battle soundness issues. Her stifles always bugged her. Ankles, too. She wasn’t the soundest horse, but she sure was the gamest.
I went to Vernon in late May last year and saw that I was put down on a horse named Courtly Choice. I’d never heard of him, but he was the morning line favorite. I had driven some horses for his trainer, Blake MacIntosh.
As I scored him down, I could see Courtly Choice was an immature, laid-back and relaxed horse without much ambition. I love horses like that.
He went off at even-money and when he left the gate, Courtly Choice wasn’t going much. I gave him a crack with the whip to get his attention and he took off running.
Oh, no. But he lit right back pacing. Now he’s fired up and doing some real pacing. He kept moving and cleared to the front, then rolled right down the road to win in 1:48.4. Impressive.
Courtly Choice was entered in the North America Cup and he got away fifth in his elim. I moved him first-over against Takter’s colt Lost In Time. My horse felt real good and I could see Lather Up was full of pace in the two-hole. Courtly Choice then drifted in and hooked wheels with Lost In Time, and we didn’t qualify for the final. I felt bad about that because I think Courtly Choice would have done well.
In the consolation, I drove a horse for Casie and Courtly Choice won in 1:49.2. I knew he was a good horse, but I didn’t know how he would turn out to be.
In his Meadowlands Pace elim last summer, Courtly Choice got post two and he won in 1:48.2. He sat close to the leaders and he just jogged.
He was so impressive that he was the favorite in the final. He drew post five and got away slowly. American History got to the front past the quarter and Dorsoduro Hanover, who had post 10, came first up and I followed him. Stay Hungry followed me and Courtly Choice won in 1:47.1 over those two.
I was thrilled. He’d raced like he was supposed to race. Winning the Meadowlands Pace was a big thrill for me.
At first, Courtly Choice was a horse that I had to wake up. I had to get him on his toes. By the time I raced him at Tioga last August in the Empire Breeders Classic, he was a changed horse. He was mentally sharp and knew what he had to do. He won back-to-back at Tioga and was really on his game.
Coming into the Jug, Blake talked about going to a race at Batavia, but instead he put Courtly Choice in a qualifier at Harrah’s, which he won in 1:52 easy.
So, I felt really good about Courtly Choice going into the Jug. He had mental confidence. He knew what he was supposed to do. Courtly Choice went from being laid back and goofing off to where he got real racy.
He drew the rail in his Jug elim, and when he scored down, he really grabbed on. I had the rail and I had a horse that was ready to roll. I was confident.
Behind the gate, Courtly Choice was fired up but began to run out. Then he made a break. OMG! He lit back pacing and caught the field. At that point, I’m thinking he’s just got to finish fourth to make the final.
Coming to the half, I moved Courtly Choice out third-over. As we go down the backstretch, he’s still running out, so I tipped him three-wide. Dorsoduro Hanover slipped inside of me to win.
Courtly Choice was third but was placed second when Stay Hungry was disqualified for interference.
Courtly Choice wore a headpole and Murphy Blind in the elim, so Blake took the Murphy Blind off for the final.
Courtly Choice drew post four. I figured that the elim winners Lather Up and Dorsoduro would fight it out for the front end.
I timed Courtly Choice coming to the gate and dropped in third in the middle of the first turn. I felt really good about his chances. Lather Up was on top with Dorsoduro in the two-hole.
Courtly Choice had to come first-up at Delaware and that’s not easy, but I had Dorsoduro locked in and I just had to deal with the pacesetter Lather Up. I still had a lot of confidence.
Even without the Murphy Blind, Courtly Choice was still running out and going a bit crooked. But when I asked him for pace, he went forward on the backside. My colt was drifting out in the stretch, but he fought all the way to the wire and won by a neck.
Courtly Choice went two huge trips on Jug day and gave me my fifth Jug winner.
The rest of the year, Courtly Choice was just no good. He must’ve spent everything he had at Delaware. He was flat at Lexington and the Breeders Crown elim. He had no pop.
You never know how a horse will handle heat racing, and Courtly Choice had raced two huge heats at Delaware.
Fear The Dragon
I’ve known Brian Brown for 20 years or more and I drove Fear The Dragon for him when the colt was a 2-year-old. Brian had another colt, Downbytheseaside, that was a better colt. Brian wasn’t so high on him then, but when I drove Fear The Dragon, I said, “Brian, this is a really, really nice horse.”
Fear The Dragon had a great gait, great speed, and he could take air. He was a strong horse.
I enjoyed driving Fear The Dragon. He “talked” a lot on the track. By that, I mean he would nicker and bellow in the paddock and when scoring down.
When Fear The Dragon was in an elimination for the North America Cup, he fell into the three-hole and then started bellowing. It actually scared me. I’d never experienced anything like that. I’ve had horses nicker scoring down, but never in a race. It sure took me by surprise. I guess Fear The Dragon was just talking to the horse in front of him. I get a chuckle out of it now.
I sent him to the front in his North America Cup elim because he was a heavy favorite. He was cruising along in front, and coming out of the last turn there’s a head number on the track. I didn’t see it until I was right on top of it. Fear The Dragon didn’t wear a shadow roll and he just took a leap over that head number and took off galloping.
Luckily, he had a couple lengths on the field, so I grabbed him and took him to the outside, but he lit back pacing after running just a few steps. He won the North America Cup elim, but there was an inquiry because he ran. The judges left him up.
There was some thought about putting a shadow roll on him. I said that he jumped over a head number, not a shadow, so why put a shadow roll on him? So, he never wore a shadow roll.
Earlier in that evening, I’d won the other North America Cup elim with Downbytheseaside, also trained by Brian Brown. So, after Fear The Dragon won his elim, Brian asked me, “Well, dude, who you gonna drive in the final?”
I said, “Fear The Dragon.”
Brian looked at me and said, “Really?”
I could understand that, because Downbytheseaside had a great 2-year-old season and he was a top colt. He’d equaled the world record as a 2-year-old and he was a bigger horse than Fear The Dragon. But I just really liked Fear The Dragon.
Fear The Dragon went on to win the North America Cup final, the Hempt and the Adios. I really enjoyed racing him.
He qualified for the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes final, but a few days before the race at Harrah’s, Brian said he had to scratch Fear The Dragon because he’d tied up. He’d never been lame, but after that, things started to go downhill for him. He got a little sick and then popped a quarter crack.
I drove Fear The Dragon in a qualifier at Hoosier Park a week before the Jug. Conditions were lousy; it was raining and the track was bad. He won in 1:54, but he was flat. He didn’t seem to have any strength. He wasn’t the same horse. Everything seemed to go wrong.
He won his Jug elim just because he was a good horse. He was not good that day. In the final, I got trapped in and he got out at the head of the stretch, but he acted like he wanted to run. He finished fourth. It was a disappointing day.
We took him to Lexington and he actually won there in 1:51.2 over an off track and he seemed pretty good. I told Brian, “I think he’s back.” But he never really rebounded the rest of the year.
Fear The Dragon was just a cool horse to race. When he was scoring down before racing, he’d bellow at the horses around him. I got a kick out of that. He was always talking.
Dean A. Hoffman is a former executive editor of Hoof Beats. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.