By the happiestkind of coincidence, the richest event in the history of harness racing willlikely be won next week by the most popular man in the sport. The event is the$150,000 Messenger Stake at New York's Roosevelt Raceway, and the man is DelvinMiller. And by no coincidence at all but rather the relentless ferment throughwhich great talent works its way inexorably to the top, Miller is also thefinest all-round horseman that sulky racing has ever produced.
Large statementslike that last one usually attract dissent as easily as kittens draw children.In this instance, however, even bias allows scant support for argument. Millermay have his equal in one or more of trotting's many key areas—in breeding,raising, training, driving and stable and farm management, to name a few—but noman's career has yet encompassed every facet of the sport with such resoundingsuccess. He has won every major stake that trotting offers and some which areno longer contested; he has more 2-minute miles to his credit (the equivalentof foot racing's 4-minute mile) than most drivers have even witnessed; hisbreeding savvy developed Adios into the premier pacing sire now in service; hispublic stable is a model of efficiency and record holder in purse winnings; andhis advice on the care and training of horses, which appears in the trademagazine Hoof Beats, is the best-read column of opinion in the business. Afinal demonstration of the man's versatility occurred last year when he becamea track impresario, sponsoring his own meeting at Arden Downs in Washington,Pa.—a meeting which was so successful that it is now a permanent stop on theGrand Circuit, trotting's touring big league series of stakes. It is worthnoting also that Miller himself won the feature at that first meeting.
Sheer horsemanshipaccounts for much of the Miller saga, but the leaven of warm humanrelationships on which he rode to the top of his profession and which sustainshim at the top today is the happy byproduct of personality, not talent. This isthe epitome of the genus sportsman—by definition, "one who in sports isfair and generous; a good loser and a graceful winner." In a bitterlycompetitive arena, the mark of whose performers is often secrecy andself-aggrandizement, Miller is an open-handed dispenser of aid and instructionto all comers. Repeatedly, when he has had two horses in a big stake, he hasallowed assistants to drive the better horse, though without fear of criticismhe could have kept the glory (and cash) of winning for himself. This happenedin the Hambletonian (1953) and twice in the Little Brown Jug (1951 and '52).And only a few weeks ago at Roosevelt Raceway, Miller chose to drive the coltthat placed second in the $34,000 Hopeful Pace while his assistant, Ned Bower,drove the winner.
Trying to accountfor such behavior the other day, Miller offered this explanation: "When Iwas starting out in harness racing, there were very few kids like me around.Most of the oldtimers wouldn't teach you anything. You had to find outeverything yourself. I made up my mind I'd be different if I got to besuccessful." Though this may not be a full explanation of the developmentof the man's character, the facts themselves are accurate enough. Now 45,Miller began competitive driving at 16, in the rugged bush leagues of trotting,long before the era of night pari-mutuel raceways. At 10, however, he wasalready jogging horses for his grandfather on the farm near Avella, Pa., whichhas been in Miller hands for more than 160 years. Some idea of Grandfather TomMiller's dedication to the trotting horse, which he passed on to Del, can stillbe seen on the farm today. It is a 15/16-of-a-mile track, patiently dug arounda rocky hillside (the only site then available) during the 1890s, and soperfectly leveled and drained that a bare minimum of tractor work would make itserviceable once again.
June 29, 1958
Miller's career,interrupted only by three years' service in the remount in the CBI theater ofwar, never hit a serious setback as he moved up through the minor leagues,quickly, to the big time. He developed and drove to sparkling victories a slewof the finest trotters and pacers ever in harness—Tar Heel, Solicitor, DirectRhythm, Stenographer, Lorraine (his first 2-minute performer)—and many whosenear approach to greatness could hardly have been achieved in other hands. Butit is undoubtedly true that Miller's shrewd analysis of Adios' potential andhis brilliant handling of the stallion's service mark the high point, thus far,of his career, in both a sporting and financial sense. Adios' influence will bea factor in the breeding of standard-breds for as long as the sport exists.After the smashing success of his very first crop of foals, Adios went on toearn more than a half million dollars in fees; when Miller sold him to theHanover Farm for another half million, he became the first million-dollar horsein harness annals.
It is the finestof ironies, therefore, that if Del Miller does not win the rich Messenger Stakeon July 4, Adios himself will be largely responsible. All three colts whoappear to have the best chance of beating Miller's own pair of entries are sonsof this great bay stallion. They are Joe O'Brien's Raider Frost and Shadow Waveand Johnny Simpson's Adios Paul.
Miller's Messengercolts are Thorpe Hanover and O'Brien Hanover, both sons of Tar Heel. Thorpe wasso unimpressive as a yearling that all the major stables passed him up in the1956 sales, and Miller himself bought him (for the bargain price of $5,000),primarily for eventual breeding purposes. Within a year, however, the respectthat the "made by Miller" tag has earned was again substantiated:Thorpe, a scary, tender-mouthed youngster at first, became the money-winning2-year-old champion of 1957, with purses of $60,766. Thus far this season hehas been raced lightly (only three starts), and with, to some observers,surprisingly poor results, since he has won just one. But it is the opinionhere that if Thorpe is ready, he is unbeatable in his class. And if Millerbelieves that this is a colt who must be brought along slowly, he isundoubtedly right.
O'Brien Hanover isanother story. Smaller and less powerful than Thorpe, he is possibly moreusable. He has started 11 times this season and won six, beating five Messengereligibles in Roosevelt's $25,000 Jubilee Pace less than a month ago with theexcellent clocking of 2:02[1/5]. The Miller entry would be odds-on favoritesfor the big race if it were not for those superb driving strategists Simpsonand O'Brien who challenge with a formidable trio; all three, however, stimulatesome doubt.
Raider Frost hastruly great speed but only occasionally shows the disposition to use it. Thisis a trait which can embarrass even as highly respected a driver as JoeO'Brien—and already has. In addition, bad luck has dogged Raider all year—likethe time at Laurel recently when a sudden cyclonic wind tore the roof off hisstall and slammed it onto his back. Unbelievably, he was not injuredphysically, but the shock did nothing to improve his race-track manners.
Shadow Wave'spotential is also difficult to gauge, for a different reason. Never raced as a2-year-old because of a debilitating high fever at the start of the 1957campaign, he has gone to the post seven times this year and won seven times.But the competition has hardly been top grade, and though the winning habit isan excellent psychological edge to bring along to a big race, the Messengerwill be Shadow Wave's first real test. If he wins, he will prove himself farmore of a colt than even O'Brien suspects.
Johnny Simpson hadtwo Messenger contenders in winter training this year—Adios Paul and Painter.They will be favored entries in later big stakes like the Little Brown Jug andthe Yonkers Pace, but both have been hobbled by lameness thus far and will notbe ready for peak efforts by July 4. It is likely that Painter will not evenstart, and Paul's showing will be as much a credit to Simpson's training skillas the colt's ability.
Of the otherentries, only Stanley Dancer's Pat Rainbow and Tommy Winn's Flying Time haveshown anywhere near the talent to earn a piece of this purse. And it will takesome startling reversals of form or phenomenal racing luck for it to be morethan a very small piece.
If the Messengerwere a popularity contest, there would be no doubt of the winner; since it's ahorse race, which means that anything can happen, the affable, talentedgentleman smiling above is simply the strongest kind of favorite.
TROTTING'S RICHEST RACE
The Messenger Stake for 3-year-old pacers. Named forthe English-bred Messenger, progenitor of practically all harness horses racingtoday, who died in 1808.
PLACE: Roosevelt Raceway, N.Y.
DATE: July 4
TELEVISION: 10-10:30 p.m. E.D.T., ABC (coast-to-coast except New
TOTAL PURSE: $150,000.
DISTANCE: 1 mile
QUALIFYING TRIALS: Friday, June 27. First leg ofpacing's Triple Crown, which also includes the Little Brown Jug and the YonkersFuturity.
THE FAVORED FIVE: Thorpe Hanover, O'Brien Hanover (DelMiller entry); Shadow Wave, Raider Frost (Joe O'Brien entry); Adios Paul(Johnny Simpson).