Delvin Miller, a chubby, cheerful 44-year-old, zoomed to the front rank in harness racing at roughly the same great speed with which he is now losing his hair. Miller developed the great Adios into the outstanding sire he is today, and sold him for $500,000, highest price ever paid for a Standardbred. On his farm, Meadow Lands in Washington, Pa., Miller has bred and trained a flock of today's top trotters and pacers, and has also driven them in their important races. Most of his horses have been given the first name of the farm: Meadow Pet, Meadow Rhythm, Meadow Ace. And friends often asked him when he was going to go all the way and give the farm's full name to one of his foals. Miller's stock answer was: "I'm waiting for the right one to be born."
Three years ago he took one look at a well-made, freshly foaled colt and was sure this was the right one; without hesitation he named the youngster Meadow Lands.
In his first year at the races—as a 2-year-old—Meadow Lands was a bitter disappointment to Miller and to harness experts generally, who have come to expect excellence in Miller-trained horses. The colt bruised himself badly in stepping on a sharp stone early in the season and never came up to form. Meadow Lands' best racing time for the mile was a dreadful 2:21[1/5] and he earned not a dime.
Miller, however, was still certain of his horse. Early this year he took Meadow Lands out to California, to give him the longest possible training season. He had to start from scratch with the colt, rebuilding his confidence, redesigning his gait. He coaxed and babied the horse along until, last week, with the richest purse in night harness racing at stake—Roosevelt Raceway's second annual $100,000 Messenger—Miller felt he was ready.
There was only one flaw in Miller's plans. This is also the 3-year-old season of one of harness racing's alltime superstars; a colt named Torpid. Up to the Messenger, Torpid had beaten every horse in his class, literally at his pleasure, and even as tough a competitor as Delvin Miller was obliged to concede he was the odds-on choice in this climactic race.
For his part, Johnny Simpson, Torpid's trainer and driver, had one nagging worry: Had Torpid completely shaken off the aftereffects of a severe flu attack, as his recent workouts indicated? The question was answered for Simpson in Torpid's first mile heat in the Messenger. The colt gamely raced to second place, but at the finish he was choked with blood that soon streamed from his nostrils. The exertion of competition had burst some remaining area of flu infection. Simpson (not the track vet, as the P.A. system told the crowd) immediately scratched Torpid from the final payoff heat and the race was wide open—to Miller and six other crack drivers and their colts. With Torpid missing, everyone had to revise his strategy.
In the following hour and a half, Miller demonstrated two of the qualities that make him the superb horseman he is: the trainer's painstaking attention to important details and the driver's keen prerace analysis of his opponent's capabilities.
MILLER PLANS HIS, RACE
It was a cold, windy night at Roosevelt, and the colts who were to go in the final heat had to stand around in the paddock for an hour or more before post time. "It's impossible," says Miller, "to keep a horse from freezing up in that kind of weather, no matter how many blankets you use. With about three quarters of an hour to go, I took Meadow Lands out and kept him warmed up with two trips around the track. I'm sure that was an important reason why he raced the way he did later." None of the other drivers thought this was necessary: in the excitement surrounding Torpid's being scratched from the final, most of them didn't even notice what Miller was doing.
Miller's analysis of his own strategy was simple but sound: "The two horses I figured I had to beat were Morris Eden and Adios Express. Both of those colts like to race covered up—back in the pack but close up enough so they can beat you with their fast final brush. The slower the early part of the race goes, the better they like it, naturally. So I decided to go for the top early myself and set a fast pace. It was a risk, with the sharp wind hitting the uncovered lead horse, but I had to take it." Worth mentioning also is the fact that Meadow Lands is a usable animal who will take orders and doesn't mind racing in whatever position on the track that Miller thinks is the correct one for any given race.
MEADOW LANDS SETS PACE
With his strategy set and a still-warm horse at the end of the lines, Miller tore away from the starting gate at top speed, made the front by the eighth pole despite the fact that he came from No. 5 post position. The first half he set as fast a pace as he dared, not over-tiring his own horse and yet forcing Adios Express and Morris Eden to use up some of their strength if they wanted to keep within striking distance. It was a delicate balance to maintain, one that only a master of pace could manage perfectly. For an instant, Miller yielded first place at the half, and then took it right back, refusing to allow anyone to sit down in front of him and slow the pace. In the final turn, Morris Eden and Adios Express had to make their moves or quit. Eden simply had nothing left after the early fast going, and faded badly. Express had clung to the rail all the way, saving ground and hoping to get clear later. But into the turn, he was stuck behind a tiring lot of colts—tiring just as Miller had hoped and planned they would—and he had to go three-wide to get around them. After that, in the stretch, Express could not make up the ground Meadow Lands had on him. Miller won by three quarters of a length, with Nyland Hanover, driven by Johnny Simpson, second and Adios Express, driven by Joe O'Brien, third.
It was a justly deserved victory for a fine horseman, and for someone else it was an excellent morale booster. Back in Washington, Pa., Miller's wife—Mary Lib to the harness fraternity—was lying in the hospital after an operation for a badly burned leg, the result of a cooking accident. Pretty, vivacious Mrs. Miller never misses Del's big races by choice. The nurses got Mary Lib up at 1:30 a.m., when the news arrived, and they celebrated with a special ration of coffee and cake from the hospital kitchen.