03/03/2011 1:48PM

Peter Miller swings for the fences on Kentucky Derby trail

Shigeki Kikkawa
With only 30 horses in his barn, Peter Miller was able to rack up 14 victories from 35 starts last fall at Hollywood, a 40 percent strike rate.

Take one horse-crazy kid from Beverly Hills, throw him in the deep fryer with one of America’s glamour stables, simmer 20 years, shave head, and voila! – out pops the top money-winning trainer at the 2010 Hollywood Park fall meet, complete with a budding star poised to swing for the big money as a 3-year-old of 2011.

Piece of cake, right? Is this an easy game or what? But then, it hasn’t been quite that simple for Peter Miller, the trainer of Hollywood Futurity winner Comma to the Top for movie moguls Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, and Kevin Tsujihara.

Miller wasn’t born to the game, but he came to it passionately, thanks to his stepfather, Gary Hallman, a professional gambler. At one time or another, Miller has trained for his stepfather’s Winning Ways Stable, prepped young horses for other trainers, and even stepped away from a full-time commitment to the profession to operate a jewelry store. It was all part of the mix.

Today Miller trains 30 horses at a Hollywood Park barn, a healthy stone’s throw from what used to be Camp Zenyatta. He makes the most of those 30, spectacularly winning 14 races from 35 starts at the 2010 Hollywood fall meet. But in these slim times, trainers like Miller are only one bad step or runny nose away from an empty stall.

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Gone are the days when trainers had another 30 horses at a farm or training center, handy for quick replenishment. That is why Miller’s stable revolves around horses ready to run. Beyond his claiming business he buys 2-year-olds – as he did with Comma to the Top – in the hopes they will pan out quickly to pay their way and encourage owners’ continued investment.

Comma to the Top – it’s southern slang for “apostrophe” – was hardly cut out to be a stakes horse. Miller bought him for $22,000 at the Ocala sale of 2-year-olds in April 2010. Thirty-one days later he made his first start at Hollywood Park, losing by a head in a maiden $40,000, then two races later he beat $50,000 maidens for fun.

“I bet a thousand across on him that first race,” Miller, 44, said one recent morning at Hollywood Park. “I didn’t think there was any way he could lose. I was with a string of my horses at Monmouth, and I was on my way into New York that night for a Yankees game when the race was run. I didn’t get much sympathy from the guys I was with, but at least the tickets were free.”

Comma to the Top showed no inclination he wanted any part of stakes company last summer at Del Mar when he was dusted twice by J P’s Gusto, first in the Best Pal and then the Del Mar Futurity. Miller was undaunted. After sending Comma to the Top north for two easy allowance wins at Golden Gate Fields, he figured the time was right to try the Real Quiet Stakes at the beginning of the Hollywood Park fall meet. Comma to the Top won the 1 1/16-mile event by 6 1/4 lengths, leading all the way.

The result was the same in the subsequent Generous Stakes, at a mile on the grass, and the Hollywood Futurity, which was in a driving rain one week before Christmas. Comma to the Top supplied additional drama by pulling a shoe during the long, muddy walk from the barns to the paddock that day, which should have been a relatively simple fix. Instead, through a mixup, the incident required two farriers and a delay of nearly half an hour. Comma to the Top won anyway, defeating J P’s Gusto by nearly two lengths.

With that, the early Derby babble began. Winning the Hollywood Futurity tends to put a 2-year-old’s name in lights. Since Point Given won the Futurity in 2000, the runners who have finished first or second in the race include Giacomo, Lookin At Lucky, Declan’s Moon, Lion Heart, I Want Revenge, Colonel John, Brother Derek, and Pioneerof the Nile. So there was Comma to the Top, as 2011 dawned, the $22,000 Florida-bred gelding who could have been had in May for $40,000, lurking among names such as Uncle Mo, Boys At Tosconova, and To Honor and Serve.

It did not last long. Comma to the Top fell from grace with a resounding thud Feb. 12 at Golden Gate Fields when he finished fourth in the $200,000 El Camino Real Stakes at odds of 1-2, beaten 4 1/2 lengths by Silver Medallion. It was an ugly fourth, featuring a meandering ride by his regular companion, Corey Nakatani, that was described later by Miller as “interesting.” The Golden Gate stewards were not quite so kind. Nakatani got a three-day suspension for his performance.

Ten days later, Miller stood in the middle of a stall occupied by Comma to the Top, mellow in his ice boots and apparently looking for company. As Comma to the Top nibbled at the hem of Miller’s well-worn leather chaps, the trainer caressed the kind head, mumbling sweet nothings.

“You’re doing this for my benefit, right?” said a skeptical visitor who’d seen “National Velvet.” Miller grinned.

“Naw, I do this all the time,” he said. “Hang around the barn enough you’ll always see me petting them, doting on them. Guys might laugh at me, but I like giving my horses that daily connection, other than just tying them to the back wall and throwing a saddle on them. ‘Yes, you’re here to do a job. You’re a racehorse. But I care about you, and I appreciate you.’ Because this is basically all I’ve ever done, and they’ve given me everything I have.”

Comma to the Top is a son of the Indian Charlie stallion Bwana Charlie and the Stormy Atlantic mare Maggies Storm. The pedigree does not exactly scream 1 1/4 miles, but what does anymore? Indian Charlie is also the sire of champion and early Derby favorite Uncle Mo.

In the wake of the El Camino Real, Miller did not spend much time feeling sorry for himself or his horse. The effort was such a dramatic departure from the gelding’s five previous starts that it had the feel of the exception that proved the rule. This did not prevent certain segments of the national media from sending Comma to the Top to the bottom of their lists.

“Considering Comma to the Top’s humble beginnings,” wrote Mike Watchmaker, national handicapper, in Daily Racing Form, “maybe – just maybe – he peaked late last year at 2, and we’ve already seen the best of him.”

Then again, maybe Miller is right in deciding to ignore the bad taste left by the El Camino Real and tiptoe forward to the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, to be run March 12.

“I satisfied myself that there was nothing wrong with him physically after that race,” he said.

A patch was noticed on the inside of his right hind hoof.

“Yeah, that’s from the shoe he lost coming over for the Futurity,” Miller said. “You can’t really call it an injury. He never took a bad step on it. The patch just gives the blacksmith a little more hoof to secure the shoe.”

Like any trainer worth his salt, Miller received his first lessons in horsemanship as a hotwalker and groom. His formal education ended in the spring of 1984, when he graduated from Beverly Hills High School – among his celebrity classmates were Nicolas Cage and David Schwimmer – since by then he knew exactly where he was heading.

“Whether or not he was going to want to be a trainer, I couldn’t say for sure,” said Hallman, Miller’s stepfather. “But I knew he loved the game.”

Hallman turned over the reins of his stable to Miller in 1989, and they enjoyed a pretty good roll for several years.

“As you look back it was a bit of a gamble, and we had our differences about where to run, stuff like that,” Hallman said. “But I was very confident in his ability to do the job.”

Miller never deviates from an origin story he began sharing in earnest in 2006, when he came to more widespread attention for his handling of Fast Parade, a brilliant turf sprinter who won stakes at Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Woodbine. Since then, such stakes winners as Set Play, Thoroughly, Backbackbackgone, Pinata, and Whatever Whenever have kept his name in the news. Miller’s highlight reel includes:

* A pre-teen stint with former trainer Jim Fresquez at his jockey school in Castaic, north of Los Angeles.

* Summer jobs in high school walking hots for Winning Ways trainers Joe Manzi and Mike Mitchell.

* Catching on as a swing groom with the first barn inside the Hollywood Park stable gates when he went looking for work the day after his high school graduation. Charlie Whittingham’s barn.

* Experience as exercise rider and assistant trainer with the stables of Jude Feld, who had horses at the time for Bruce McNall, and Don Warren, head man with California’s Old English Rancho.

“Quitting Whittingham after only a few years was a dumb move,” he said. “But I was impatient, in a hurry. I was making a hundred and sixty a week, and your only chance to make any more is if you’re rubbing stakes horses all the time.”

Though brief, Miller’s time with Whittingham served as an apprenticeship of great worth. Miller reported to Whittingham’s mercurial assistant, the gifted horseman Rodney Rash, and crusty old barn foreman Ed Lambert, who had been with Charlie since time began. Contact with the head man, however, was at arm’s length.

“It was awe-inspiring,” Miller said. “Here’s a guy I’ve idolized. Now I’m in his shed row, and here he comes, walking toward me. My first thought was, ‘I better not look at him.’ I don’t think I did for the first six months. Charlie didn‘t try to be intimidating. He just was. Once I got to know him he was the nicest guy. He’d tell me anything I wanted to know.”

Miller was smart enough to pay attention to the coterie of veteran grooms who made the Whittingham machine run like a finely tuned battleship. There was motor-mouth Rudy Roberts, whose horses were always better than yours. The serene Frank Solis, whose touch tamed the basket cases. Burly Oswaldo Vargas, intimidated by no beast. And wise Charles Clay, the man behind Sunday Silence, who fairly crackled with an edgy integrity.

“Clay was something,” Miller said. “Kept to himself mostly, but after a while he began to share things with me. What a great groom he was. He ended up bringing me pork-chop sandwiches for breakfast.”

Whittingham took enough notice of Miller to send him to Belmont Park with a small string of horses in the fall of 1985, in the company of exercise rider Janet Johnson and Alex Hassinger, future trainer of two Breeders’ Cup winners, both champions.

“Yep, me and Peter were in the trenches together,” Hassinger said. “We got to stay right there in the old Belmont cottage that belonged to Max and then Buddy Hirsch.”

The following year Miller rubbed Palace Music, the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Mile runner-up and later the sire of Cigar.

“Charlie called him the ‘Hereford’ because of his white face,” Miller said. “Bit me so hard in the chest one time my eyes watered. Charlie told me not to worry, it was a long way from my heart.”

Which is funny, since it wasn’t a long way from the heart, really, but the line was classic Whittingham. The man was a pure original – having survived the Depression, Guadalcanal, and training for Liz Tippett – who left disciples like Miller imbued with his horse-wise spirit.

“Charlie and Rodney ruled with an iron fist,” Miller said. “There was never a lot of b.s. going on, and that’s kind of the way I like to run things. This is serious stuff. You can play later. These horses deserve your fullest attention, so I want things done a certain way and expect that to happen. When it doesn’t, I can lose it sometimes. I’m not proud of it, but this is a difficult profession, and there is so much pressure.”

Miller’s flirtation with being a jockey went the way of most pre-pubescent hopefuls.

“I wanted to be a jockey bad enough that my folks had me tested for growth,” Miller said. “They measured my wrists, took some X-rays, and told me my weight full grown would be between 140 and 150 pounds. If I’d known better at the time I would have asked if I could be 6-2 and have a full head of hair, too. That was a cruel trick to play on me.”

Miller is not 6-2, and the hair, in retreat as he aged, is now worn Whittingham style, billiard-ball smooth. Combined with a stern set of dark brows and a soul patch tickling the underside of his lower lip, this gives Miller the look of a spy movie tough guy, the kind of character who never gets the girl.

Only he did. Miller met his future wife, Lani, when he stabled his horses at the San Luis Rey Downs training facility, just to the northeast of Del Mar. She was on the scene watching the horses owned by her employer, van lines executive Robert Shepherd.

“We said hello and talked, but that was all until the summer of 2005 at Del Mar, when I ran a filly I owned named Road Runner Robin for $62,500 on the grass,” Miller said. “A horse broke down, another horse fell on top of that one, and my horse had to jump around the outside and pull up. The stewards declared the race no-contest, but they also made the decision to void a claim put in for my horse. I contended that once the gates opened the title changed hands, no matter what happens in the race.

“So it was a bad day, and later, when I ran into Lani, she suggested we go get a drink,” Miller said. “That was our first date.”

Miller eventually went to court to try to overturn the decision of the stewards, but failed. Still, the day turned out all right. Lani and Peter Miller were married in Del Mar in 2009.

“And we still own Road Runner Robin and all her babies,” Miller said. “Some horses you’ve just got to keep.”

Should Comma to the Top rebound in the San Felipe with a race resembling his Hollywood form of last fall, look for him to creep back onto the countless Derby lists at some level. His owners hardly need the money, which means the lure of the Triple Crown events will be strong. Miller figures it is his job to walk that fine line between surrendering to Derby hysteria and taking a sensible shot at everlasting glory. Anyway, he already knows what a Derby winner looks like up close.

“I was one day away from being Ferdinand’s groom,” Miller said. “It was at Del Mar in 1985 when he first came in. Bill Albritton was rubbing him, and one day he didn’t show, so Rodney had me fill in. He told me if Bill was a no-show the next day, the colt would be mine.”

But Albritton reported, and the following May he was standing alongside Ferdinand in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.

“I guess it would have been worth my time to have found Bill and given him twenty to take another day off,” Miller said.

Ferdinands come around a barn only once in a generation, if then. Whittingham, Miller reminded, was 73 when he won his first Derby.

“There’s nothing I’d love more than going back to the Derby with a shot,” Miller said. “But if the only point was to just run in the Kentucky Derby, I could have done nothing but trained him after the Futurity, gone back to Churchill Downs, and finished 14th. If we do go, I’d like to think it was him who takes us there.”