Four days removed from making horse racing history in the Breeders’ Cup, trainer Peter Miller sat on a long wooden bench that is perched above the track on the backstretch at Del Mar, watching horses breeze under overcast skies.
For all of the TV time and media attention and winner’s circle celebrations that were part of Miller’s Saturday repeat double with Stormy Liberal and Roy H at Churchill Downs, this is truly his happy place.
Or at least as happy as Miller can ever be.
On this Wednesday morning before the opening Friday of Del Mar’s fall meeting, where Miller will attempt to defend the training title he won last year with 19 victories, he is serious, pensive, maybe a little sleep-deprived.
Up since before dawn, dressed in well-worn jeans and gray pullover sweatshirt, he doesn’t seem like a guy who’s close to the top of the racing world.
By way of explanation, Miller says, “I tell my owners that I’m that moody, high-and-low kind of guy.”
That statement brings a smile to his face, because he’d been talking about training being more art than science, and how brutal that can sometimes be for a guy who finds it hard to ever feel satisfied.
“I’m just a tortured artist,” Miller said. “That’s kind of how I feel like training horses is for me. When you’re an artist, the painting is never good enough. Eight out of your 10 paintings suck. Eight out of your 10 races come back bad.
“That’s me, unfortunately. I wish it wasn’t so. It’s not pleasant to feel tortured. But that’s how it feels for me. That’s why I joke with (the owners), ‘You’re not dealing with a normal guy in a normal job.’ ”
In the next breaths, Miller brings himself back from the brink of whatever darkness there is.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he says more brightly. “I love the horses. I love the industry. I’m grateful, thankful I found it.”
The 52-year-old Miller has never been better at it than he is right now.
At the first Breeders’ Cup staged at Del Mar a year ago, Gun Runner was clearly the biggest story as he beat Arrogate to win the Classic. But Miller’s hometown feats were second by a nose.
Down the road from his home in Encinitas, the trainer of 30 years captured not only his first, but a second BC victory with Stormy Liberal in the Turf Sprint and Roy H in the Sprint.
It was the greatest day of Miller’s career. How could he ever top it?
He somehow did, with the same horses, in the same races this year.
Five-year-old gelding Stormy Liberal, with only modest backing from the public at 7-1, outdueled favorite World of Trouble to win by a neck. The victory gave rising Southern California riding star Drayden Van Dyke his first BC triumph.
Not two hours later, Miller was in the winner’s circle with Roy H, who notched more of a cruising win with another first-time BC winning jockey, Paco Lopez.
The occasion was unprecedented. No trainer in the 35 years of the Breeders’ Cup had saddled the same two winners in the same races in consecutive years.
Allowing for positive reflection on the Del Mar perch, Miller said, “What we’ve accomplished in the past two Breeders’ Cups is very special. Any time you can do something that’s never been done before, that’s cool. In a game when there are thousands of races each year, it’s hard to do new stuff.”
This year’s Breeders’ Cup also brought particular satisfaction because he and his wife, Lani, took their two young boys, Jacob 6, and Seth, 4, with them. Ironically, the kids weren’t at Del Mar last year because their parents thought they were too young to handle the long day.
This time, they visited horse farms and the Louisville Slugger museum, and took in the full experience.
“To win the races with my boys there, that was incredible,” Miller said.
“They do get it. They understand the significance of the Breeders’ Cup and that they’re big races.”
Miller enters the Del Mar fall session already with a career-best 10 graded stakes victories for the year. He’s won with 22 percent of his starters and earned more than $7.8 million, both career highs. He ranks in the top 10 nationally in earnings.
Miller needs only four more victories to reach the milestone of 1,000 in his career, and he’s virtually assured of doing that in this meet at Del Mar, where he’s aiming for a third straight training title after being on top last fall and again over the summer, with 31 winners.
While Miller’s usual home base, San Luis Rey Downs in Bonsall, continues to receive the finishing touches on the reconstruction after last year’s wildfire, the trainer has about 80 horses at Del Mar — half of them expected to race.
“For the most part, it’s going to be a bread-and-butter type of meet for us,” Miller said. “I don’t know that we’re going to be the leading trainer here. I don’t know that we’re going to run enough or have enough bullets. But we should compete.”
Among Miller’s horses to watch is Fly to Mars, whom he’s pointing toward the Grade II Seabiscuit Handicap on Nov. 24. Fly to Mars, considered for the Breeders’ Cup but ultimately held back, finished third in the Del Mar Handicap in August and second in the City of Hope Mile in early October.
When Del Mar’s fall meet ends, it will serve, in some ways, as a calendar marker for Miller of a year of disparate highs and lows.
Coming off the Breeders’ Cup and successful Del Mar meet, there were crushing emotions in December when fire ravaged the San Luis Rey training facility and killed 46 horses — five of them from Miller’s stable.
“It was obviously the most traumatic thing for all of us in the industry,” Miller said. “That was a really difficult period.”
Then in July, a top Miller prospect, Bobby Abu Dhabi — whom he’d likened to Roy H — collapsed while training in front of the grandstand at Del Mar. Jockey Victor Espinoza suffered fractured vertebrae in his neck, from which he still recovering, and the horse died. A full necropsy report released in late September determined that Bobby Abu Dhabi suffered sesamoid fractures in his leg, but died due to broken vertebrae in his spine suffered as he hit the ground.
Shaking his head, Miller said, “It’s a tough game.”
As much as it’s been a milestone year, it’s one that the trainer will be glad to see pass.
“I’m hoping for a smoother year,” Miller said. “There’s been enough drama this year for 10 years.”
Del Mar fall meet
Opening day: Friday, first post at 12:30 p.m.
Schedule: Racing through Dec. 2, Thursdays through Sundays plus special Veterans Day card this Monday. First post daily at 12:30 p.m. except for 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 22).