Harness Racing Innovator Del Miller Dead at 83
COLTS NECK, NJ. (AP) _ Even if Del Miller hadn’t been such a successful harness racing driver _ winner of 2,442 races and $11 million in purses _ he would have had a major impact on the sport.
Miller, considered the sport’s ambassador of good will and an innovator who helped promote it around the world, died Monday in Washington, Pa. after a long illness. He was 83.
``The sport has lost its greatest trainer, driver and ambassador,″ said John Cashman, owner of Castleton Farm in Lexington, Ky. ``He did everything in the sport. He knew it, loved it and lived it.″
Believed to be the only professional athlete to compete in eight decades, Miller was involved in every aspect of harness racing, first as a driver, later as a trainer, owner and breeder. He drove his first race at age 15 in 1929 while playing hooky from high school, and his last one in 1990 at age 77.
Asked about still driving as a senior citizen, Miller laughed off the question.
``I think I’m safer on the track, driving in a race than I am driving my car during rush hour,″ he said.
By then, Miller had become one of the best-known figures in the sport, traveling the world to drive. There were stops in Russia, New Zealand, Sweden, France, Germany and even the Arctic.
Cashman accompanied him on one of the trips to Russia.
``It was amazing,″ he said. ``Delvin knew everybody there.″
Miller was always most comfortable, though, in his native Pennsylvania, where his friends and neighbors included sports celebrities like golf’s Arnold Palmer and baseball’s Stan Musial. ``What he has done for harness racing, I don’t think anyone has done for any sport,″ Palmer said.
Miller’s driving career was interrupted by World War II. He won two bronze stars in the China-Burma-India theater and when the war ended he returned to his sport to find it in some disarray.
Track management was introducing the mobile starting gate, and the drivers were resisting the innovation, even threatening to strike in protest.
Miller smoothed the dispute, convincing the drivers to give the idea a chance. It has, of course, become a permanent part of the harness racing landscape. He also helped pioneer the use of safety helmet.
In 1948, Miller became an owner, going well over budget to bid $21,000 for a stallion named Adios. His judgment paid off when his horse’s progeny went on to earn more than $20 million. He sold Adios for $500,000 in 1955 but continued to breed the horse at his Meadow Lands Farm.
Over the years, Miller drove in all of harness racing’s classic events including a record 26 Hambletonians, the most of anyone in the 71-year history of the event. He won the Hambletonian and Little Brown Jug in 1950, the Yonkers Trot in 1960 and 1974, the Kentucky Futurity in 1954 and the Messenger Stakes in 1957 and 1960. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1968.
Miller’s father, a railroad worker, died in a flu epidemic of 1918, and he was raised on a Pennsylvania farm owned by his grandfather, who bred and trained standardbreds.
In recent years, Miller kept a home in Orlando, Fla., where he continued to train a few horses until his illness. Miller and his wife of 50 years, Mary, made their permanent home in Meadowcroft, Pa.
Also surviving are his brother, Albert, and a sister, Margaret Miller Townsend.
Miller will be buried beside his mother, Amy Grannis Miller, at Cross Creek Cemetery in Independence, Pa., near his boyhood home in Avella. Funeral services are private, but a memorial service will be held at a later date.