08/30/2012 3:05PM

Hovdey: Miller takes shot at Del Mar Derby with bargain-basement purchase

Coady Photography/Keeneland
Peter Miller paid only $1,000 to purchase All Squared Away, who will run in the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby.

“Over here,” said Peter Miller, his eyes twinkling beneath his bold, caterpillar brows. “Take a look at the only thousand-dollar sales horse who’s won a Grade 2 stakes race.”

Miller ducked under the webbing and unhooked a big, brown gelding, built like a lumberjack, with a long forelock splayed between his kind eyes. All Squared Away, a son of Bellamy Road, submitted to an appreciative inspection then went back to thinking about whatever Thoroughbreds think about all day long in their stalls.

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“When you buy a horse,” said Miller, “you worry the most when you pay too much or too little. I liked his looks before he went into the ring, and I thought I might have to give maybe $30,000 for him. When they asked for an opening bid of a thousand I put up my hand.”

There followed the sound of crickets and wind. A tumbleweed drifted past the Fasig-Tipton podium. Someone nervously cleared his throat.

“Silence,” Miller recalled, “for what seemed like the longest time.”

And the hammer fell. Miller had bought himself a thousand-dollar horse for what is described in sales circles as the “upset price” – the minimum bid designed to be low enough to tempt bargain shoppers but high enough discourage buyers who troll horse auctions for slaughterhouse resale.

“I was scared,” Miller recalled. “What’d he have, cancer? I know it was only a thousand, but the costs are the same – shipping, vet work – no matter how much you pay.”

The date was Oct. 27, 2010. The place Lexington, in the Thoroughbred cradle of Kentucky. The Bellamy Road colt left town shortly after that without causing so much as a ripple in the fabric of the game. Nobody cared much when he returned, either, a year and a half later when he went postward in the $200,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Then he won by 1 1/2 lengths, at odds of 70-1, and horse racing had another one of those fairy tales you had to be there to believe.

As for his place among bargain basement stakes winners, All Squared Away comes in just under two-time Horse of the Year John Henry, who sold for $1,100 as a yearling in 1976. Clearly, Miller’s steal has a ways to go. For further context it should be noted that the 2012 Lexington Stakes was not exactly a harbinger of great things to come for those who ran that day, unless you were willing to wait four months for fifth-place finisher Golden Ticket to jump up and take a dead-heat share of the Travers Stakes with the highly regarded Alpha.

All Squared Away has had several chances to prove the Lexington was no fluke. So far the best he has done is win a turf race at Del Mar on Aug. 12 while in for an $80,000 tag. That was his first race on grass, and it came at the right time, prompting Miller not only to sell half of his 75 percent interest in the horse – to Adam Wachtel and Nils Brous of Ron the Greek fame – but also toss him into the Del Mar Derby this Sunday against Old Time Hockey, Midnight Crooner, and Howe Great in hopes of getting a nice piece of the $300,000 prize.

The way the Miller barn is cooking this summer, who’s to say it can’t happen? Miller began the week with 18 wins and in a tie for the top spot in the standings with four-time Del Mar training champ Doug O’Neill. Even with O’Neill suspended, Miller is still hearing the loud footsteps of Bob Baffert and John Sadler close behind, but he will go down swinging with runners in every kind of race over the final days of the meet.

On Saturday, for instance, Miller has tried to surround the $300,000 Del Mar Debutante with three entries. Heir Kitty (by Wildcat Heir) and Miss Empire (by Empire Maker) just got through finishing second and third behind Know More in the Best Pal Stakes, which is noteworthy because Know More is a colt and the Best Pal is usually one of the benchmark races of the West Coast division.

Speedinthruthecity, a mouthful by City Zip, comes to the Debutante by the more traditional Del Mar route of the Sorrento Stakes, in which she finished second to division leader Executiveprivilege, unbeaten now in three starts. Miller said Speedinthruthecity might veer off into the new turf stakes for 2-year-old fillies on Monday’s Labor Day program, but he gets to look at both fields before he decides.

“I’m not doubting Executiveprivilege,” Miller said. “She’s a very good filly. But I don’t think we’re that far behind her. And things change all the time with 2-year-olds. We just need to move a little bit forward and she doesn’t. And don’t forget – it’s a horse race.”

Of the three Miller fillies, only Miss Empire, at $165,000, went for six figures, and that was at the Ocala sale of 2-year-olds last March. Miller led his visitor to her stall.

“The only knock on her was that she was too small,” the trainer said. “But she’s got a big stride and a big heart. And what a family.”

Miss Empire’s half-brother, the sprint whiz Bordonaro, won the Ancient Title at Santa Anita and two runnings of Oaklawn’s Count Fleet. Doing her family proud, Miss Empire won the Cinderella Stakes at Hollywood Park as a maiden.

Miller won the Debutante in 2007 with Set Play, when his stable leaned hard toward the claiming side of the game. More recently he has tried to transition to more quality stock, but still, to lead a meet in California these days, it helps to be able to attack any race in the book.

“It’s been an incredible meet,” Miller added. “I need to appreciate this, because usually I don’t. My memory is short. And you’ve got to remember we’ve won five or six photos. So we’ve been very lucky, but you have to be lucky to win a title.”