Peter Miller's Barn has Winning Ways
(source:, Ed Ziaralski - July 29, 2015)

BONSALL — Trainer Peter Miller spends two days a week at San Luis Rey Training Center in the lush northern San Diego County river valley that ribbons out of the Palomar Mountains, a place that y seems to calm him down and turns his horses out ready to run and win.

It’s clear that Miller thrives here at this cozy country setting where great horses like Cigar, Azeri, Gato del Sol and Ferdinand trained and conditioners like Charlie Whittingham and D. Wayne Lukas once worked strings of horses. On a recent Saturday morning with lightning and thunder as a backdrop, Miller started his day by checking the legs of all his horses. Without even thinking about it, he uses lessons learned from the late Whittingham and late Mike Mitchell, two men he worked for early in his career. All the while he stayed in touch with Ruben Alvarado, his foreman at Del Mar for the summer.

“We always have a lot going on, but right now we have 100 horses, 50 in two places, and there’s this crazy weather.” Miller said. “Can’t be in both spots at the same time. That’s when you rely on your assistants.”

As he said that, Miller switched gears and gave riding instructions in perfect Spanish to an exercise rider as lightning lit up the sky and thunder echoed in the storied adobe barns.

“When I came around the track I wanted to learn everything,” he said. “Everyone was Hispanic, and I figured if I’m going to communicate with these guys, they’re not learning English. I better learn Spanish.”

Such is the life of the modern thoroughbred trainer who just now is at the top of his game. Since 2012, Miller has won two Del Mar summer training titles, winning one himself in 2012 and sharing one with Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer last summer. He won the fall title here and arrived at Del Mar this summer fresh from winning the spring conditioner crown at Santa Anita, sharing that with Doug O’Neill. Through two weeks of racing this summer at Del Mar, Miller and Hollendorfer are battling again and tied at the top with six wins.

“The Santa Anita title was my first there and really meant a lot,” Miller said. “No one has won a title there shipping from a training center. But we did it.”

Kevin Habell, the Stronach Group’s general manager at San Luis Rey, is a Miller fan.

“I’ve known Peter for a long, long time,” Habell said. “He’s a real go-getter, hard worker and an awesome guy to work with. We’re all proud of him here.”

Said handicapper and jockey agent Aaron Hesz: “Peter is the best Jewish trainer since Bobby Frankel.”

It hasn’t always been this way for Miller, competing for training titles and battling the best of the best.

He used to say he didn’t have the bullets to contend for a training title. Now he has an arsenal that includes horses of every class.

TV commentator Millie Ball hosted a handicapping seminar with Miller at Del Mar before the races the first week of racing. She told the crowd: “Peter has such diversity in his barn, everything from claimers to graded stakes winners. That’s what makes his barn so interesting.”

Statistics bear out the growth of Miller’s barn and the rise of his success. He started in 1987 with five starters and one second-place finish for the year. His stepfather, Gary Hallman, a professional gambler who had Winning Ways Stable and introduced Peter to the sport, was his first client. The following year Miller saddled his first winner, Dynashield, on April 25, 1988. A career was born.

Miller has progressively gotten better. He put together his best year ever in 2014, winning 95 races and earning $4,823,371 in purses, good enough to rank 21st in the nation. This year, he’s on track to top that. He has 67 wins and $3,386,733 in earnings, ranking him 13th among the top trainers in the country.

So what changed Peter Miller from a small-barn trainer to one who will challenge the likes of Bob Baffert, O’Neill, Sadler and Hollendorfer for titles at every Southern California track?

For the answer we look no further than San Luis Rey, where Miller met his wife, Lani, a graduate of Rancho Bernardo High. She was working for trainer Bob Shepard, doing his books and managing his business. She and Miller became friends and were married. Miller was 43 years old when they married. He’s 48 now, and marriage has agreed with him. He’s more focused and even more driven than ever.

“I was pretty wild,” he said. “It was time for me to settle down. No question, that changed me.”

Said Lani: “It’s amazing how life is. If I didn’t get the opportunity to work for Bob Shepard, I would have never met Pete. It turns out I’m doing the same thing for our business now that I did for Bob. We make a great team.”

They’ve also started a great family already. Jacob is 3, and Seth, who was born during the Del Mar meeting last year, will be 1 year old next month.

“We love coming out to support him and be with him here . . . Jacob and Seth love the horses and the jockeys,” Lani said. “These last couple of years have been unbelievable. He has put in so much time and so much effort and committed so much to his horses and his stable that it’s definitely shown. We’re so proud of him.”

Lani said the transformation in her husband’s barn has been dramatic.

“At one point he was where he couldn’t rub two nickels together and now a lot of people are calling him,” she said.

In addition to checking every horse’s legs every day, Miller purchased his own endoscope to examine horses for bleeding in the trachea or lungs. By doing the scoping procedure himself, Miller says he saves his owners hundreds, if not thousands of dollars over the career of a horse.

Miller said he couldn’t oversee his barn and be current on every horse without an excellent crew, and he has surrounded himself with good people, starting with his wife, Lani. Top barn assistants include assistant trainer Stephanie Korger, barn foremen Ruben Alvarado and Martin Espinoza and exercise rider Heather Contreras.

“It takes a great team when you have 100 horses in two places,” he said. “And we’ve got one.”

Miller has taken a shot at the Kentucky Derby, saddling Comma to the Top in 2011. He finished 19th. He has a second- and a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, both with his talented filly, Reneesgotzip. Once at Del Mar, Miller said winning the Del Mar title was more important to him than winning the Kentucky Derby.

“The Kentucky Derby? Oh yeah, winning that would be wonderful,” Miller said. “But I’m not one to put the Kentucky Derby up high. I’d love to win it. But winning it wouldn’t define me. It wouldn’t define my career. It wouldn’t define me as a person. If it happened, it’d be great. But if it doesn’t, that’d be fine, too.”

So, what is important to Miller in racing?

“I like winning a lot of races . . . that’s my drug,” Miller said. “I like numbers. I get just as excited at winning an $8,000 claimer as I do a Grade I. I like being respected. I’ve got a clean record. I’ve never been suspended, knock on wood. I’m a hands-on trainer, and I take it very seriously. We work very hard at not making mistakes. That’s what a lot of these (drug positives) are, mistakes that happen by carelessness. I’m proud of my record. I think my reputation is that I’m just a hard-working, competitive hard-nosed guy.

“I just try to do the best I can do with the stock I have, try to give my owners a good value for their buck and the bettors, too. I really take the bettors seriously. When they bet on me they’re getting 100 percent. I can’t tell you how many two-dollar bettors have come up to me over the years and said, ‘I bet on you and your horses, and your horses always run.’ That’s important to me.

“But really, the most important thing to me is my family, my two boys and my wife, they’re the most important. This is a lifestyle, the whole thing. It’s a passion, and they share it with me.”

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