02/14/2013 1:35PM

Brad Free: Miller rode this first-timer all the way to the bank


ARCADIA, Calif. – It was the last race on a sleepy Thursday at Santa Anita. Trainer Peter Miller quietly hoped his undistinguished first-time starter would attract no attention.

It’s a good strategy when trying to put one over – no attention.

Miller had a sneaky first-time starter in a modest $30,000 maiden claimer. The workouts were slow. There was little chance the first-timer would be claimed. Who would claim an inexpensive gelding with dawdling workouts? More to the point, who would bet on him?

Days prior to his Feb. 7 debut, Laugh At Life worked six furlongs in 1:16.20. Before that, he went five furlongs in 1:04.40 and 1:04.80. If the first-timer had ability, it was not evident. Most horses in California work faster than Laugh At Life.

“He showed he could run at the sale,” Miller said. “We were just breezing him easy, keep him slowed down. I knew the horse could run. I didn’t need the clock to tell me.”

Laugh At Life was purchased for $20,000 last April in Florida at the OBS spring sale of 2-year-olds in training, where Miller bought 11 horses.

One stayed in Florida. Others merged into a solid group, often cranked up early. Three of the six that started last year won first out.

Heir Kitty, Hyena, and Serious won debuts in July. Secret Memo finished a close second in August. It was nothing new. Miller trainees often are live first time out.

The past five years, Miller first-timers have won 24 of 148. Maiden-claiming first-timers won 17 of 80.

So when Miller looked at the odds board while adjusting equipment on Laugh At Life – 10-1 in the program – he should not have been surprised.

“I’m looking, and the horse opens up at 8-1,” Miller said incredulously. Why “is this horse opening up at 8-1?”

Good question. Based solely on work times, Laugh At Life’s odds should have been higher. Most handicappers, including this writer, missed him. Still, there was a trickle of support.

Perhaps one reason the horse got some play was his trainer’s win-early reputation. Also, the gelding’s sire, Got the Last Laugh, had two debut winners already from his first six starters. And the maiden’s rivals looked soft. The race was ripe for a new shooter.

But the primary reason Laugh At Life’s odds closed relatively low was that Miller bet his money. How dare he – trainers don’t bet, do they?

“It’s a weird kind of conflict,” Miller said. “We’re in this parimutuel industry, yet we are supposed to keep it secret that we bet. If a trainer likes to gamble and cash a bet, there is some sort of connotation that it is wrong. It’s not.”

California Horse Racing Board rules do not forbid trainers from backing their own horse. Rules only prohibit trainers from backing a different horse to win.

CHRB Rule 1070 states, “No owner, authorized agent, or trainer having a horse entered in a race shall wager on, or include in any wager, any other horse competing in such races to finish first . . .”

A trainer can bet to win, or across the board. A trainer can key his horse – on top only – in vertical exotics, which Miller said he did.

No guarantees. Miller only believed Laugh At Life was better than his slow works.

Laugh At Life broke cleanly, pressed the pace wide, made the lead on the turn without being asked, broke it open, and romped under a hold at $24.20. Score for Miller.

“He paid for my son’s college education,” he said.

Miller did not make any friends.

“Everyone is mad at me – everyone – because I didn’t tell anyone,” he said.

The trainer rejects any notion he should have spread the word it was a “go” with a maiden-claiming first-timer. Was he obligated to spread the information?

“No,” Miller said. “When they offer to pay my son’s college education that is when I will be obligated.”

Miller, a part-owner of Laugh At Life, probably is not the only trainer who bets. Most keep it confidential.

“We always do,” Miller said. “You never hear that [a trainer] took it all down in the eighth race on Thursday. . . . It’s hard to do.”

For the record, Miller did not say how much he bet, how much he made, or if his son will attend private college or public. Who knows?

Miller could have made up the whole story. Not likely.

Yes, some trainers bet. What a surprise.

Where does that leave handicappers without access to so-called inside information? Laugh At Life perhaps is a reminder that workout times are only one factor. In maiden races, trainer tendencies and pedigree are essential considerations.

Wagering support also can be considered. Of course, when it is a multi-race wager that ends in the final race, one might have required a spread ticket to pick up Laugh At Life.

His slow workouts suggested minimal ability.

As it turns out, Laugh At Life did have ability. He was live first time out.