01/07/2017 9:48AM

Giwner: Can 2016 be the first of many career years for Marcus Miller?

USTA Photo
Marcus Miller will compete in the Miami Valley Driver Challenge on Sunday.

Marcus Miller is going places. Coming off the best year of his career and with his success confirmed by winning the Rising Star Award from the United States Harness Writers Association, the sky seems to be the limit for the 27-year-old driver.

An Illinois native, Miller was one of the top drivers on the Chicago circuit in 2011 and 2012, winning 501 and 436 races, respectively. With purses dwindling and the hope for revitalization in Illinois seemingly unlikely, Miller followed his dad Erv Miller east to chase the casino-fueled purses at tracks like Pocono and Harrah’s Philadelphia in Pennsylvania.

To say the switch required some adjustment was an understatement. Miller went from 436 wins to just 188 in 2013. His starts dropped from 2,595 to 1,772. “Winning less was a big change,” admitted Miller. “It took a while for people to figure out who I am.”

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In a classic case of slow and steady wins the race, Miller has upped his starts each of the last four years, climbing from 2,198 in 2014 to 2,419 in 2015 and reaching his career high of 2,727 last year. He also eclipsed his career best in earnings, as horses driven by Miller took home $5,447,916, nearly $1.6 million more than his previous best total.

“Two years ago my days off weren’t really by choice. Last year I’d get like four to five drives a card. In 2016 I was pretty much busy the whole card every night and my overnight drives were a lot better,” said Miller on his progression.

Miller, who spent most of his time driving at Pocono and Philly in 2016, plans to follow a similar schedule this year, but he hopes to continue to build on his Grand Circuit success. He was able to pilot 2-year-old pacing filly Someomensomewhere to a Breeders Crown win and had plenty of wins at the Red Mile this past October in stakes events.

Unfortunately for Miller, according to a report on theharnessedge.com, Someomensomewhere was sold privately to Diamond Creek Racing and Bob Boni. She will now race for new trainer Jimmy Takter, which could mean Miller won’t be in the bike when she returns from winter vacation.

“She was really awesome for a stretch and was really good to us,” said Miller about Someomensomewhere, before talking about the sale. “That was a bummer, but I understand that the owners have to make money when you can.”

With his main tracks closed, Miller has been setting up shop at The Meadowlands and displaying good success. In December he picked up 10 wins in 88 starts at the New Jersey track, good for fifth in the standings. For the year, the Pennsylvania resident was able to pick up 36 wins, nearly tripling his 13 victories from 2015 in a similar number of starts.

With The Meadowlands only racing two days a week right now and limited opportunities on the east coast, Miller is making a trek to Miami Valley in Ohio to compete in the $25,000 North American Drivers Challenge from January 8 to 10. The tournament attracted 30 drivers who will compete in preliminary legs over the first two cards before the top eight battle it out on the track for the top prizes on Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m not very busy this time of year and this will give me some time to see friends I haven’t seen in a while,” said Miller on why he decided to participate. “I’ve never really raced in Ohio. I think the last time I was there was an amateur race in 2007.”

Miller is not new to these driving tournaments, having finished fourth in a similar tournament at Philly back in September. Those watching the races that day saw a much more aggressive style of driving that made for some exciting and enjoyable racing.

“It became a situation where there wasn’t a next week. Every race was like a big final,” said Miller.

While Miller agreed that the racing was more interesting, he also warned that it isn’t reasonable to contest races like that on a consistent basis. “We are dealing with animals and you can’t be wide open on a suicide mission with them every week,” he said.

An acknowledged patient driver, Miller is very much looking forward to working with his father’s babies in the spring and some of the 2-year-olds he drove to victory in 2016.

“I think he has a lot of nice horses in Florida right now,” said Miller, who added that his father went after some higher-priced yearlings at the fall sales.

Miller named two pacing colts, R J P and Chip Walther, as 3-year-olds that could prosper in 2017. “R J P could be a really nice horse if he is a bit calmer. Chip Walther got good at the end of the year and he could be good if he carries that over to this year,” said Miller.

In addition to visiting Ohio, Miller will head to Las Vegas in late February to pick up his Rising Star award. He’ll be joined by his whole family including sister Hannah, who was named the top amateur driver in the sport for the second straight year.

It truly is a good time to be named Miller.