Jim Miller does it all at Hawthorne Race Course
This month’s edition of Hoof Beats shines the spotlight on Jim Miller, director of publicity, director of horsemen’s relations and racing analyst at Hawthorne Race Course, plus a USTA director for District 5.
This is the 23rd year that Miller has worked at the 128-year-old track that is owned by the Carey family and since 2016 has been conducting both Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing. He is also general manager of racing at the Illinois state fairs, held at both Springfield and Du Quoin and overseen by Hawthorne.
Neil Milbert spoke with Hawthorne’s multi-taskmaster about his racing and baseball careers.
HB: What do your duties entail?
Miller: Anything to do with public relations goes through my office—radio and TV interviews, newspaper and magazine interviews. I analyze races on the air. I’m the one who considers stall applications by trainers and handles the dorm assignments for those who work on the backstretch.
I coordinate our post times with those of other racetracks. In simulcasting you have to realize where your track falls in the grand scheme of things.
For example, during the course of a Standardbred meet a track like The Meadowlands is top dog and the product at Woodbine [Mohawk Park] has gotten very strong, so people will focus on those tracks if there is a conflict. With smaller tracks like Northfield and Pocono on a Sunday night, it’s common courtesy to try to avoid them because that benefits everyone.
I’m not only looking at where the horses are on our track. I’m looking at four television monitors to see that our race doesn’t overlap with one at another track. It’s learning tendencies. More and more tracks are dragging races past post time. It may say zero minutes to post, but that actually may mean seven minutes to post for one track and two minutes for another track.
I learned a lot about horsemen’s relations from Bob Carey (deceased father of Hawthorne’s president Tim Carey) years ago. When he came back to the track after a serious accident, I spent a lot of days walking with him (on the backstretch), listening when he talked to horsemen and finding out how he handled things. I learned so much from him about dealing with horsemen. The members of the Carey family care very much about the horsemen.
I served as Hawthorne’s assistant general manager before I had my little stint away from the track (as director of racing for Midwest Thoroughbreds), and now there are a lot of day-to-day things where I’m asked for my input.
HB: What are some of the major differences in the way you go about your work when you switch from harness racing to Thoroughbred racing and vice versa?
Miller: You have more time between races on the Thoroughbred side so you can focus more on the broadcast. You see a lot more visually when Thoroughbreds go into the paddock so you can get a better feel for the race. I do the morning line for the Thoroughbreds; for the harness we use TrackMaster. Doing the line is time consuming. Then, for my analysis, I go over the races again to get a feel for how the race will unfold and that’s completely different than doing the morning line.
HB: At the state fairs, what are your responsibilities as general manager?
Miller: Everything we do at the state fairs is from the bottom up. I’m taking care of hiring and staffing and putting together the broadcast and production teams. Then, I’m putting together the racing program—how many races we’ll have, which races what day, how we coordinate the post schedule. When we get into the racing day, it’s a matter of coordination. The last couple of years I’ve taken the role of announcing as well, and that’s more fun than anything else.
HB: Josh Gross, who took the reins as Du Quoin State Fair manager this year, said he wants to bring back the World Trotting Derby, which was discontinued in 2010 when the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s budget was slashed. What’s your reaction?
Miller: That would be great. If we can bring that back, it’ll be a huge deal. We started talking about it this year after the passage of the bill (gambling expansion legislation that starts in 2020 will enable tracks to have casinos and allocate a portion of the revenue for purses). There’s such history at that racetrack. They have a massive grandstand to handle events like that and the barn area is absolutely gorgeous. When you walk through the grandstand you see some of the pictures and murals from when they had the Hambletonian.
HB: What was your introduction to racing?
Miller: I grew up in Des Plaines (a northwest suburb of Chicago, not far from Arlington International Racecourse) and I was going to be brought out to the track to celebrate my 10th birthday on Aug. 1, 1985. I had been there for Cub Scout events a couple of years, but this was going to be the first time I saw actual races. Unfortunately, Arlington burned down on July 31. My parents drove out there and we sat across the street. I remember it vividly—we had a box of doughnuts and something to drink and we just sat there and watched in awe as the track burned.
In 1993, when I was going to Prospect High School, I got a summer job at Arlington. I was a green coat (usher). I’d make wagers before the races and when I was on elevator duty when a race was going on, I’d hold the elevator on the second floor so I could watch on the TV monitor before moving on to the next floor.
My duties often put me in the box seat area next to the press box and I got to know Dave Zenner and Joe Kristufek (of the publicity department). When it came time for the Arlington Million, they used to put together an expansive media guide with biographies. They needed some help and that’s how I got out of my green coat duties and into my press box duties.
The following year I moved into the press box and I was doing (closed circuit) television at the age of 17. Being tall, I don’t think anyone (in the audience) knew how young I was.
I started working at Hawthorne in the fall of 1977 during the Thoroughbred meet. I was playing minor league baseball at the time and it was the off-season. I worked with Joe and Dave and did some on-air analysis.
HB: Let’s hear about your sports career.
Miller: In high school I played golf, basketball and baseball and earned nine or 10 letters between the three sports. In baseball I was a catcher and pitcher. I caught more than I pitched.
When it came to growth, I was a late bloomer. Early on in high school I was 5 feet 8 inches. Then, in one summer, I had a growth spurt and went from being a point guard on my high school basketball team to being a 6-foot-6-inch center and in college I was a 6-foot-7-inch power forward.
At Carthage College (just across the state line in Kenosha, Wis.), I was cut from the baseball team my freshman year when I tried out as a pitcher. At the time I wasn’t strong enough and I wasn’t throwing hard enough. As a freshman and sophomore, I played basketball for Carthage.
My junior year I focused on my studies. I was a communications major and in the spring I was working in publicity at Arlington. I had 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. classes and then I’d drive to Arlington Park. After the races I’d drive back to Carthage.
By my senior year I’d gotten stronger through lifting weights and working out and the coaches on the baseball team contacted me and asked me to come back out. My first day on the mound was our scout day when pro scouts came out. The coaches lined up the pitchers in the order they thought the scouts would want to see them. We had 14 pitchers and I was 14th in line.
The first time throwing against college hitters I threw four pitches and got three outs. As I walked off the mound one of the scouts called a pitching coach over and talked to him briefly. The pitching coach told me: “Go back to the mound and throw as hard as you can.” I didn’t understand, but I threw about 10 fastballs. Then, they asked me if I threw anything else. I had been messing around pitching tennis balls against the side of a dormitory. With the tennis balls I threw a split-fingered fastball. So, I threw a split-fingered fastball and it dropped off the table.
My coach talked to the scout and the scout said he wanted me to fill out an info card. I had no idea what was going on. Then, the scout told me: “Every fastball you threw was going 92 mph.”
I went from a nobody to a top-of-the-rotation starter. I had an incredible season—I was an All-American and had a 10-1 record. We were ranked third in the nation in Division III and went to the College World Series.
I wound up getting drafted in the 11th round by the Milwaukee Brewers. That was 1997 and my career path changed rather quickly. When I was drafted to play baseball, I had a job lined up at Rockingham Park. I was going to go there to take over the public relations department and do television analysis. Instead, I spent the summer pitching minor league baseball in Helena, Mont. My second year I was in Ogden, Utah. I started my third season in Beloit, Wis. and then moved up to Stockton, Calif. When I was at Stockton in my fourth year I was released.
Those four years were a great experience. I won a total of 20 pro games and played with and against guys who went on to the majors.
HB: Was that the end of your baseball career?
Miller: No, I still play in a competitive wood bat league, the Chicago Men’s Senior Baseball League. It’s a 28-and-up league and sometimes I come up against some other former pro players. I’m 44 and it’s nice to be able to get guys out who are 15 years younger.
I also manage my son’s baseball team. [My wife and I] have two children. Our daughter, Hannah, is 14 and does cross-country and track. Owen is 12 and pitches and plays first base and does track. Being his manager gives me the luxury of setting up the baseball schedule around our racing schedule.
This year our team played in Cooperstown, N.Y., for a week. Tim Carey is really cool about stuff like that. The Careys gave me the time off to manage the team in Cooperstown.
When I came back to Hawthorne after my brief stint at Midwest Thoroughbreds in 2013 I knew two things: one, I wanted my job to be at the racetrack; two, I didn’t want to miss things with my kids the way I did when I was the assistant general manager (at Hawthorne). My current job lets me watch them.
HB: What do you like best about your job?
Miller: The initial appeal was the excitement that came with the race—regardless if the bet was $2 or $200, you were excited every time a race came up and no two races are the same. That was the initial excitement. When I got more into it, watching the horses in the paddock and on the track was what appealed [to me].
These days the thing I love most is the people in racing. Harness and Thoroughbred, it’s a 365-day-a-year job. The horses don’t have a holiday; they still need to be fed and cared for. Seeing the amount of time these people put in and the love and passion they have for racing is what’s most rewarding for me.
HB: What are your most memorable moments in racing?
Miller: There are a couple in Thoroughbred and currently there’s one in harness.
I was still working at Arlington in 1996 when Cigar came there and won his 16th straight race (equaling Citation’s modern record) in the Arlington Citation Challenge. At my age, to be in the winner’s circle interviewing (jockey) Jerry Bailey and (trainer) Bill Mott was an incredible experience.
When I went to work for Midwest Thoroughbreds, it was the start of Work All Week’s career. After his first victory—when he won a sprint race at Hawthorne with such ease—I told Rich Papiese (owner of Midwest Thoroughbreds) he was something special, and he went on to win the (2014) Breeders’ Cup Sprint. I was back working at Hawthorne watching it on TV when he did it, but that still was another incredible experience.
On the Standardbred side, I’m living it right now with (two-time Illinois Horse of the Year) Fox Valley Gemini. I followed that horse from the start of his 16-race undefeated streak and I was at the microphone in Springfield (in the summer of 2018) when he lost to You’remyhearthrob.
The disappointment of realizing he was not going to get there was offset by the realization that this was going to be one of the biggest upsets in a long time in Illinois and at the same time You’remyhearthrob’s young driver, Kyle Wilfong, was going to reach a career milestone by getting his 1,000th career victory. This past summer getting to see Fox Valley Gemini race week in and week out (as a 4-year-old) has been really cool.
HB: Looking at the current Illinois racing landscape, what are your thoughts?
Miller: First and foremost, kudos to Tim Carey for sticking it out. I’ve been at Hawthorne for 23 years and I’ve seen how things were in recent years, how everyone was struggling to stay afloat. When I started we still had Sportsman’s Park and we still had Maywood and Balmoral. Seeing those tracks go by the wayside was very sad.
The passage of the gaming bill this spring is a credit to the legislature and a credit to Governor (J.B.) Pritzker and it’s a credit to Tim Carey and (Hawthorne) lobbyist Bob Molaro to see this come to fruition.
There’s excitement and renewed hope for horsemen who have stuck it out with us. Now, a track with so much history is going to have a casino and sports book to revitalize racing. For me, having been here for 23 years, I know I’ll be able to be here for another 23 and retire at Hawthorne. We’re looking at being able to double, triple or even quadruple purses. I hope to see million-dollar races for the first time at our racetrack. I really believe that’s going to happen.
As soon we get our casino license, we’ll be starting construction—if not that same day, the next day. We’re skipping a short spring Thoroughbred meet (in 2020) and spreading out our harness days, which will allow us to get our casino open six months earlier and let everyone reap the rewards that much earlier. You have this huge building and having that structure in place means we can do things very, very quickly. Everything on the inside will be upgraded and renovated. While that is going on we’ll be able to start harness racing in February and the product on the track won’t be affected because all the work is being done inside the plant.
The casino will be on the second floor next to the Gold Cup Room and the sports book will be in the first-floor grandstand area. We want to keep our racing patrons centrally located around the finish line area.
At some of the other (racino) locations they make sure you get into the casino, but it’s hard to get to a betting window for horse racing. That won’t be the case at Hawthorne. Unlike so many other tracks who put racing on the back burner when they get casinos, the Carey family wants to use this great opportunity to put the focus on racing.
HB: The gaming bill also calls for a new racino exclusively for harness racing to be constructed in the far South Side suburbs of Chicago to fill the void that was left when Balmoral Park and Maywood Park went out of business. Tim Carey will be an investor in the track in Tinley Park that Rick Heidner wants to build and open in December 2020. Why is Hawthorne’s head man getting involved?
Miller: At Hawthorne we’re the only dual-racing facility (offering both Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing) in the U.S. and track conversion limits the amount of racing. Because Maywood and Balmoral are closed, the goal is to get harness racing back to a year-around racing schedule. Once that facility (in Tinley Park) is up and running it will enable Chicago to go back to at least 200 nights of harness racing after being down to 75-80 nights the last few years. We can still have summer harness at Hawthorne when Arlington is running and race Thoroughbreds in the spring and fall while knowing the new track gives us flexibility in the future.
There definitely will be input and influence from Hawthorne. I have to give Rick Heidner a lot of credit, because when we were down at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield he was in the paddock asking questions and wanting to get a better understanding of what a day in the life of a horseman is like. He asked a lot of questions about the racing end, as well. Rick has a passion for harness racing and he wants to find out how best to do things so we can succeed at this new location. HB
Neil Milbert is a freelance writer living in Illinois. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.