02/28/2002 12:00AM

Miller and Futural have one coming


ARCADIA, Calif. - Jess Miller is not bitter. Far from it. Life is too short, and too good, to dwell on what might have been. Still, there is a hole in his trophy case and a place in his heart where he feels a Hollywood Gold Cup rightfully belongs. So just don't ask him to forget.

Miller is the principal owner of Futural, along with Jack Weitz, and their horse is one of the leading contenders in a wide-open running of the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday. With 14 entered, anything could happen, and they seem well matched on paper. But of those 14, only one horse has ever finished first in a million-dollar race before. That horse is Futural.

Eight months ago, Futural led the field under the wire in the Hollywood Gold Cup, run at the same 10 furlongs as the Santa Anita Handicap. Futural was impressively best, beating runner-up Aptitude by 1 1/2 lengths. But he was disqualified and placed third behind Skimming, the pacesetter he allegedly bothered while sweeping to the lead at the head of the stretch.

Whether there was interference remains a judgment call. In California, judgment calls cannnot be appealed. Few doubt that Futural was going to beat Skimming handily, and that Aptitude was already making up ground on Skimming as well. Aptitude and Skimming were a betting entry owned and trained by the same people - Juddmonte Farms and Bobby Frankel.

"What really was hard was reading a quote from a steward, a few days later, that Futural was clearly the best horse in the race," Miller said.

"I know judgment calls are tough," Miller added. "But how about some common sense? You've got to have good reason to disqualify a horse from a million-dollar race - or any race, for that matter. If they can't give it to the best horse on that particular day, who was obviously going to win the race, then I think we have some problems with our rules."

As a native of California and a racing fan since the mid-1940's, when his father first took him to Hollywood Park, Miller has seen more than his share of controversial calls in major events. Most notably, there was the 1981 Hollywood Gold Cup, in which Caterman was taken down for bothering Eleven Stitches, and the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap, when Perrault was disqualified after beating John Henry by a nose.

"I remember Perrault," Miller said. "But the one I really remember was The Wicked North."

That should come as no surprise. There were similarities in the disqualification of The Wicked North to Futural's Gold Cup. In the 1994 Santa Anita Handicap, The Wicked North beat Stuka by 1 1/2 lengths. He was taken down for interfering at the head of the stretch with Myrakalu, the horse who finished fourth. Stuka, who was promoted to first, was not involved, and it was hard to make a case that Myrakalu was going to finish any better than he did.

"Phil Hersh owned The Wicked North, and he was sitting right next to my box," Miller recalled. "I must have watched that thing 10,000 times. It was the worst call I've ever seen in my life. An absolute joke."

Seven years later, the joke was on him, but nobody was laughing. Miller hopes the sour taste of the Gold Cup can be replaced on Saturday in the Santa Anita Handicap.

"You don't like to dwell on the past," Miller said. "But a word like redemption comes to mind."

Miller, 68, was born in Ontario, Calif. His father had a chicken ranch just down the road from the Thoroughbred farm where the legendary Rex Ellsworth bred and raised a legion of stakes horses in the 1950's and early 1960's. Among them were Swaps, Candy Spots, Olden Times and Prove It, winner of the 1961 Santa Anita Handicap.

"Ellsworth was like our hometown hero," Miller said. "He really drew my interest to racing."

Upon his discharge from the Army in 1955, Miller went to work for Certified Grocers. In 1973 he started his own wholesale grocery business, then in 1980 he went into mail order prescription drugs, forming JAM Pharmaceutical Inc. About that time he bought his first racehorse, as well.

"I love the business. I just love it," Miller said. "I've got between 15 and 20 horses right now, and it's just such a competitive fight just to stay even. Especially at my level, when you've got all these giants of the business around you, you're a tremendous underdog.

"The honor is to have a horse run in the Handicap," Miller added. "Then, if you get lucky enough to win it and have that trophy sitting in your house, that's the ultimate. Like at Hollywood Park, where they have the names of the Gold Cup winners engraved out in front."

Miller was referring to the marble wall just inside Hollywood's clubhouse gates, dominated by a sculpture of Swaps and highlighted by the names of every Gold Cup winner since the race was inaugurated in 1938. Beside the year 2001, the name reads Aptitude.

"Could you imagine," Miller wondered, "years from now, my grandkids walking up and pointing to a name, and saying, 'That was my grandfather's horse'? That's what touches me, being part of the history. They can never take that away from you."

But they did, at least on that day. Aptitude went on to compliment Futural by winning the Saratoga Breeders' Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Futural followed the Hollywood Gold Cup with a second to Skimming in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, but then he ran so poorly in the subsequent Pacific Classic that trainer Craig Dollase was prompted to give Futural the rest of the year off. Futural returned with a modest third in a mile allowance race on Feb. 9, and now he jumps into a Santa Anita Handicap that features nothing as accomplished as Skimming or Aptitude.

"This isn't the greatest field that ever lived," Miller said. "If you take that into consideration, and if Futural is ready to run a mile and a quarter, quite honestly, with a clean trip, I think he will win the race."