08/05/2007 11:00PM

Trainer finds himself in odd spot

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Being the leading trainer at Del Mar has led to a few awkward moments for Peter Miller. He found that out recently while visiting with friends between races.

"Someone said, 'I'm sitting with the leading trainer at Del Mar,' and I started to look around for Jeff or Doug," Miller recalled over the weekend.

Perennial leaders Jeff Mullins and Doug O'Neill were nowhere to be seen. Miller was the focus of the comment. Through Sunday, Miller has forced people to notice his stable, winning seven races and tying for the lead in the standings with O'Neill.

While they had the same number of wins, O'Neill had started more than three times as many horses (66) than Miller (20). It is the first time that Miller, 40, has led a race meeting.

"It feels weird," he said.

Wednesday, Miller will try for his first stakes win of the Del Mar meeting when he starts Princess Susan M and Set Play in the $150,000 Sorrento Stakes for 2-year-old fillies.

Miller's stable has grown from only a few horses a few years ago to approximately 45 this year, thanks largely because of the support of Sean Gerson, who operates a syndicate, Hollywood movie producer Gary Barber, and his brother Cecil.

Getting to the top of the Del Mar standings this year was not a complete surprise to Miller, who saw a lineup of races in the first few weeks that worked for his stable.

"We bypassed some spots at Hollywood Park," he said. "The day the track opened for training, we were on it. We won a couple of photos. It's fantastic."

But he admits that sustaining the success may be impossible against Mullins and O'Neill, who have much larger barns.

"I'm bringing a knife to a gunfight," he said. "As I look down the shed row, I don't think I can do it."

Just as quickly, he adds, "We have got some live horses to run."

Miller's career in racing has changed directions a few times since he first became a fan as a child. He grew up with racing in his Los Angeles home, thanks to his mother, Susan, and stepfather, Gary Hallman. They own Winning Ways Stable, which has run horses in California for more than 20 years.

Miller wanted to be a jockey when he was 10, going so far as attending a jockeys' school in Castaic, Calif. The plan was short-lived, though.

"He was going to be too big, but he loved being around the horses," Susan Hallman said.

Miller trained the Winning Ways horses when he was in his early 20s, including Spirited Susan, the winner of the 1991 California Thoroughbred Breeders Association Marian Stakes at Fairplex Park. But he left the sport entirely in the mid-1990s.

"I got burned out," Miller said.

Miller operated a jewelry and gift business in Oceanside, Calif., for nearly five years before he decided to get back into racing.

"The biggest surprise was that he ever got out," Gary Hallman said. "It's really pleased me that he's gotten back in and done so well. He's really exceeded our expectations."

After returning to training, Miller stayed in San Diego County, opening a stable at San Luis Rey Downs, in Bonsall. Initially, he prepared horses who were making comebacks for other trainers before launching his own stable in 2004. Miller had 8 wins in 2005, 30 in 2006 and had had 24 this year, through Sunday. The most recent was Whatever Whenever in Sunday's Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Miller has high hopes for Set Play, who finished third in the Landaluce Stakes at Hollywood Park on June 30. He considers her a candidate for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Purchased for $105,000 at a 2-year-olds in training sale in Florida earlier this year, Set Play will be ridden in the Sorrento for the first time by leading jockey Michael Baze.

"I think she's a very good filly," Miller said. "She's a filly that needs to be ridden with patience. Michael Baze is such a rider. He's been working her."

Miller has 16 horses at Del Mar and 30 at San Luis Rey Downs.

His best horse in the last year has been Fast Parade, the winner of the Nearctic Stakes and Green Flash Handicap in 2006 and the Impressive Luck II Handicap at Santa Anita earlier this year. Fast Parade is nearing a return from knee surgery, Miller said.

"I'm happy with the year so far," he said. "I've got a great staff and a great team. It's not just luck. Everything has fallen into place."