09/23/2002 12:00AM

Horses love his magic fingers


ELMONT, N.Y. - When Jimmy and Dennis Richard's remarkable Bonapaw, decisive winner of Saturday's Grade 1 Vosburgh at seven furlongs, leaves Belmont Park in few days, bound for Chicago and the Breeders' Cup Sprint, the man behind the wheel of the van will be trainer Norman Miller.

Miller and Bonapaw make up a rare team and they are together most of the day. In the morning, before Bonapaw goes to the track for training, he is given a one-hour massage by Miller, who also serves as his exercise rider.

Miller's approach has produced a rich harvest. Bonapaw, a 6-year-old gelding by the Exclusive Native stallion Sabona, was purchased as a yearling at Keeneland for $6,500. He passed the $1 million in earnings with his smashing victory in the Vosburgh.

And if he can reproduce his Vosburgh form at Arlington Park, where he won two stakes this summer in commanding fashion, he could add handsomely to his bankroll and reputation.

He looked very sharp in winning the Vosburgh, leading from start to finish against a good field with Gerald Melancon in the saddle. He went the first half-mile in a lively 45.10 seconds, but had enough left for the stretch run to turn back the challenge of the favored Aldebaran to prevail by 2 1/2 lengths.

The Richard brothers, who own and operate a chain of tire stores in the New Orleans area, have raced horses for 30 years, The first was a $5,000 filly named Helena B., who won several races. In the interim there were many others who could not win.

"My brother Jim went to the Keeneland sales a few years ago," Dennis Richard recalls. "He bought two horses for us. One, at a cost of $6,500, was Bonapaw. The other, who cost $22,000, was named Louisiana Doc. He never broke his maiden and we gave him to a charitable group that provides rides for crippled children."

Miller began his training career 23 years ago after military service. A third-generation racetracker, his grandfather was track superintendent at Hawthorne for many years while his father was a jockey agent. About 15 years ago, Miller's stable began to tail off form, for no apparent reason.

"I was a sports fan, and read that a number of top athletes had used a masseur on their staff," he said. "Horses are athletes. Maybe there was a correlation. I studied kinesiology and bought a book on stress point therapy. I began to massage my horses before their exercise and they seemed to love it. It improved their performance."

A year and a half ago, the Richard brothers invited Miller to join their stable staff. He took over full responsibility for Bonapaw last spring, following the return from an unsuccessful trip to Dubai.

On Miller's watch there were those two stakes victories at Arlington Park and the strong performance in last weekend's Vosburgh, which might have been his best effort ever. Or is the best still ahead?