The scene in the winner's circle looked like a high-society party photograph you might see in a high-end glossy magazine, except these smiles were real.
After saddling Manitoba Derby winner Street Prancer for super-trainer Steve Asmussen Monday at Assiniboia Downs, trainer Blair Miller scored his 500th win in the following Friday's fifth race and ran smack into a bride-to-be celebration for Chelsea Morrisette and a giggling gaggle of beautiful bridesmaids in the Winner's Circle. Of course Miller got hugs, and they were all well-deserved after four decades spent with horses.
You don't get cuddles too often in the horse game. You lose a lot more than you win, and considering 20 per cent of the licensed trainers in North America win 80 per cent of the races, winning 500 races has to be considered a master's degree in horse training. But you can't learn it from a book.
And Miller didn't.
Born and raised in Russell, the now 52-year-old Miller, his brother Craig, and Eddie Driedger, brother of record-setting local jockey Irwin Driedger, started out at the age of 11 breaking Shetland ponies and anything else that had four legs and a tail. The little rascals of Russell broke the ponies and apparently a few steers and heifers so well the local rodeo had to ship in new animals just so they could put on a proper show with something wild.
"All I ever wanted to be was a jockey," said Miller. "I started out with C. J. "Shorty" Gray for $10 a week. We slept and ate in the horse trailer. I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world."
Miller learned to exercise horses and progressed to the point where he was ready to ride in a race at an unrecognized bush meet and was named on Shorty's horses. The problem was he'd never been in a starting gate.
"Shorty took me to the gate to get ready for the races, but I had my cowboy boots on," said Miller. "I fell off coming out of the gate and went underneath the horse and got dragged, kicked and beat up. Shorty told me not to tell my parents or they wouldn't let me ride. I rode six and won all six."
Miller almost rode at a recognized meeting at Marquis Downs in Regina at the age of 15, when the officials hinted at changing the rules to lower the riding age from 16 for him, but that didn't happen and the next year he grew six inches and gained 35 pounds. His riding career was over before it started.
Miller continued to work for Gray, exercising horses and eventually went out on his own with a few while continuing to work as an exercise rider. He won his first race as a trainer at Greenwood in Toronto with 15-1 long shot Mr. Quill, and he was on his way.
While most of Miller's winners have come at Assiniboia Downs over the years, he's also won at Greenwood, Woodbine, Fort Erie, Northlands Park, Marquis Downs, Mountaineer Park, Turf Paradise and every other track he's had a trainer's license at. He's also won almost every stakes offered at Assiniboia Downs, with the exception of the Manitoba Derby and the Winnipeg Futurity.
And he's conditioned some awfully good horses including Canadian champion filly Gold Strike, Assiniboia Downs Gold Cup winner Far Flung, Sonoma Stakes-G3 winner Wise Acre, numerous game claiming horses such as Honest Onyx, Strike the Chord, Phantast and Bear With Us, and $1,000 North Dakota-bred Breaker Breaker, a horse Miller developed to win numerous stakes and which finished second, beaten by a head by Scotman in the 2000 Manitoba Derby.
Miller graciously thanked his owners: The list read like the who's who of Manitoba horse racing and includes Fil Fileccia, Ed Kaspersion, Tom Payne, Gord McNaught, Bob Crockett, Barry Anderson, Harvey Warner, Barry Arnason and Anne and Dave Champion, among many more.
Oh, and Miller's parents, Hazel and Alvin? They knew he had fallen off and got stomped before he rode his six winners.
"I'm happy they still let me do what I wanted to do," said Miller. "I love my job. How else could you do this for 41 years. It's like being a hockey coach, only tougher, because your players can't talk to you. We put a ton of work into the horses and if they're healthy and happy they'll give you everything they have. They're bred to run and they love it. All the money we make goes right back into keeping them happy and healthy. We love these horses, and when they get hurt, I don't think people realize, it's devastating to us."
Miller handles the bulk of the training duties in the barn while his girlfriend, Sarah Fleguel, exercises the horses and helps on the business and public relations side of things.
"The owners love Sarah," said Miller. "She's the best." Like the name of his 500th winner.