Miller finds old-school magic with horse
MOUNT VERNON — An improbable pairing and a bit of déjà vu sent 76-year-old Mel Miller and his much-younger friend, J.R., speeding past a Knox County horse racing record that stood for 31 years. Miller was in the sulky behind his horse, Justice Reigns (J.R.), who trotted his way to a new track record at the Knox County Fairgrounds. His wire-to-wire winning time of 1:59.0, on Monday of fair week, beat the old mark of 1:59.4, set by Meadow Nile with Paul Woolison driving in 1988. Incredibly, that isn’t J.R.’s best run of the year. This week, he went up to Northfield Park and had his best race of the season (1:56) on July 30.
Their record-setting run at the Knox County Fair was made more exciting because track announcer Chris Patterson (the man who called J.R. and Miller’s historic race) has known Miller since he owned his first horse. Even as Patterson was calling the race, it was hard for him to contain his excitement. Throughout the race, Patterson referred to him as ‘Mighty Mel Miller’ — A nickname that harkens back to the old days.
Miller, who started racing in the 1960s, took a hiatus from the track, but he started back about two years ago. Now, at 76, he is doing what he likes best, although his family worries about him.
“He is scaring us to death,” said his daughter Melanie Robbins. “He had us four kids and we grew up as track brats. When he said he was going back to racing, it was sort of mixed feelings with us. We’re a little scared but, for him, he’s done this forever.”
Miller dropped out of racing, simply because the purses, even for first place, had gotten so low.
“There was just no money,” Miller said. “I had one of the top trotters in Ohio in the ’60s and he went for top purses all the time.”
In retirement, Miller missed racing, but it was the money from the casino gambling that injected an increased cash flow into Ohio’s racing industry and lured him back.
“We were some place looking at a racing program,” Miller said. “I saw the prize money and I said, ‘Look at the money that these horses are going for. I’m going to go get a horse.’”
Miller had his eye on J.R., an Indiana bread horse, for quite a while, so he was pretty sure about purchasing him.
“I went out to see him a few times before the auction, but he was never there,” Miller said. “I just assumed he was going to be out, just like the other ones I picked out. All of a sudden, this horse came into the ring. I looked at the papers and I said, ‘That’s him.’ So, I went up to him and got as close as I could. Then, he shook his foot.”
When it came time to bid on J.R., Miller’s wife Kay had left to use the restroom. That left Miller all by himself.
“I went and bought him,” Miller said, “Then, she was mad with me at first.”
It took a little convincing from an unexpected source to convince Kay Miller that her husband had done the right thing.
“No, I wasn’t very happy,” she said. “Then, I met J.R. and he has such a wonderful personality, he just wins you over. He wins everybody over.”
J.R. is a friendly horse with a wonderful disposition. He’s also a bit quirky — even when he knows it’s only a practice day. It would be simple for J.R. to go out the front door of the barn and take a short walk to the track entrance. J.R. however, has his own ideas. Like many other athletes, JR is superstitious and, at age 7, he has developed a routine before he gets out on the track.
J.R. prefers to leave the barn by the back door and walk around the outside of the barn slowly, pausing as if to prepare himself mentally. He emerges at the front of the barn and starts walking toward the track entrance. He makes one stop and then, another, watching the other horses down on the track, making their practice runs. It is almost as though he is sizing up the other horses to see who his competition is going to be.
“That’s why those two work so well together,” said Robbins. “Because dad is patient enough to let J.R. take his time. We say, J.R. is special and what we mean is that he might be autistic. He has to have things a certain way. If you change his routine it confuses him. It throws them off. A lot of horses are like that.”
After taking J.R. six laps around the track, it’s was back to the barn for a rub down, a shower and a carrot.
“He used to like candy mints,” Kay Miller said. “Then we started him on carrots and now, that’s his favorite treat.”
For Mel Miller, J.R. has led him on a trip through his youth, making his stable name of Déjà Vu so appropriate.
“He always showed speed,” Miller said. “I could get him in gear in two steps. In three or four steps, he’s gone. That’s what I kept telling my wife. He’s got speed — sprint speed.”
Miller likes showing the younger drivers how it’s really done — from daily practice to pre-race preparation.
“He is schooling the young ones,” said Kay Miller. “When we go to Northfield Park, he warms up his horse twice. Before a race, all these young professional drivers, only take their horses out once. They would mainly just jog them — that’s all. They don’t even take any kind of fast trips. So, somebody came up to us and said, ‘You’re old school.’ A lot of the young guys started saying that, so my husband said that he is going to take them to school and show them how it’s really done.”