07/15/2013 2:07PM

Del Mar: Miller has more ammunition for repeat bid

Benoit & Associates
Comma to the Top sealed the training title for Peter Miller at last year's Del Mar meeting.

DEL MAR, Calif. – It has been 45 weeks since Peter Miller captured the first training title of his life, here last summer at Del Mar, a moment he savored then, and one that has kept on giving. Miller has since established himself as a permanent fixture in the top 5 of the trainer’s standings at subsequent meets in Southern California, and heads into this year’s Del Mar season with some 70 horses in his care, a significant increase from a year ago.

He had a tumultuous finish to the 2012 meeting, enduring a 0-for-31 streak that threatened to cost him the title, but he rallied on the meet’s closing day with three wins, two in stakes, to beat Bob Baffert by one win.

“I never get tired thinking about that,” Miller said in a recent interview. “It was kind of surreal, amazing, unbelievable after going 0 for 31 for the two weeks before closing day, throwing everything at the wall, nothing sticking.”

[DEL MAR 2013: Complete meet coverage, schedule, race replays]

Leave it to two of his long-time stalwarts, Comma to the Top and the filly Reneesgotzip, to provide the two stakes victories on closing day. Both are back for this year’s meet, with Reneesgotzip in a classified allowance race on Thursday, and Comma to the Top scheduled to make his next start in the Grade 1, $300,000 Bing Crosby Stakes on July 28.

“He’s unbelievable. He’s my John Henry,” Miller said of Comma to the Top, a gelding who won the Cash Call Futurity at age 2 and, now age 5, has earned more than $1.3 million. “He’s meant so much to me. His co-owner, Gary Barber, has been one of my biggest supporters, as have his partners Kevin Tsujihara and Roger Birnbaum. It’s great that he’s still performing at a Grade 1 level. Last year, he’s the one who sealed the deal.”

The win by Comma to the Top provided the margin of victory for that Del Mar training title. Miller is a long-time resident of nearby Carlsbad, and remembers going to Del Mar as far back as when he was a youth, so winning a title here had extra meaning.

“Del Mar is my favorite place on Earth,” he said. “I spent every summer since I was 8 at Del Mar, so to win it in front of friends and family meant a lot.”

Miller, now 46, followed up his Del Mar title by finishing third at the fall meetings at both Santa Anita and Hollywood Park to finish 2012 with career-best totals of 77 wins and $3.6 million in purse earnings. This year, Miller was fifth at Santa Anita’s winter meeting, and tied for fifth at the Hollywood Park meeting that ended Sunday. He recently won the 400th race of his career when Chief Havoc took the Swaps Stakes.

“Last year’s meet was good for business,” said Miller, who said he had approximately 50 horses during Del Mar’s meet last year. He picked up several new clients, most notably Richard Pell, best known for owning Fast Falcon and Fly Down in New York with Nick Zito. Earlier this year, Miller bought five 2-year-olds at training sales for Pell.

“That’s part of what winning a Del Mar meet does – a Richard Pell picks up the phone and says he wants to have horses with you,” Miller said.

Even with the increased numbers, though, Miller believes it will be hard to repeat. “The big four – Baffert, Doug O’Neill, John Sadler, and Jerry Hollendorfer – they’ve got 100-plus horses,” Miller said.

In fact, had O’Neill not begun a suspension the final 2 1/2 weeks of last year’s meet, he, not Miller, would have been the training champ. O’Neill won 18 races before going to the sidelines, and then his assistant, Leandro Mora, won 10 races. Their 28 combined wins dwarfed Miller’s 21.

At the very least, look for Miller to be a factor right from the start. Even before he had the stock to compete for a training title, or cement his position in the top 5, Miller always pointed for Del Mar, and was known for getting off to white-hot starts. It was by design.

“Del Mar is our showcase meet. It’s our Saratoga,” Miller said. “As Saratoga is to New York racing, Del Mar is to California racing. You want to do your best when everyone is watching. It’s the most-publicized meet, the most popular. You work hard all year, but you maybe work a little bit harder at Del Mar. For everyone at the barn, there’s a little more spring in your step.”