Walking outside of his barn at Del Mar racetrack, one of the most successful and controversial horse racing trainers in Southern California turned to an owner ambling alongside.
As a columnist approached, a mischievous grin punctuated a cheeky introduction: “He’s here to do a hatchet job on me.”
The voice did not belong to silver-haired lightning rod Bob Baffert. Or Richard Baltas. Or Jerry Hollendorfer.
The dusty shoes and wry ribbing belonged to Peter Miller, a man whose racing resume seems matched only by the emotions lining both sleeves and razor-sharp opinions he refuses to keep under lock and key.
Miller, who walked away from the sport in November before returning after six months, is back at Del Mar for the summer meeting’s see-and-be-seen opener Friday.
The man with nearly $69.5 million in career earnings created whispers and finger-pointing by stepping aside after Del Mar’s fall meeting. Many surmised he was avoiding potential punishment after a run of horse deaths, waving away smoke before it became full-blown fire.
Trust Miller, he’s keenly aware.
“Just burnout and frustration with the state of the industry,” said Miller, 55. “It’s the greatest sport in the world and the worst-run industry in the world. Someone said to me, ‘What about the airline industry?’ I said, ‘If horse racing ran the airline industry, there’d be a crash every day.’ “
Miller, who lives in Encinitas, is 45th in all-time earnings despite total starts that stand 76th. His win percentage ranks 33rd. He rose to international prominence when the same two horses won the same Breeders’ Cup races in back-to-back years — Roy H in the Sprint, Stormy Liberal in the Turf Sprint, in 2017 and ’18.
More big-stage cement was poured when Belvoir Bay picked up the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in 2019.
Miller insists a primary motivator was to make a pocketbook-driven point, as much as time away spent with his sons in places ranging from Joshua Tree National Park to Cabo and spring training in Arizona.
“I wanted to take a break from it and also make a statement about, hey, this needs to change,” said Miller, citing his perception of how trainers and owners are treated. “It was a one-man protest, but I think I got my point across. Financially, with field sizes, it hurt Santa Anita a lot with me taking a break. It was a me-and-the-industry thing.
“I don’t want to start fights, so probably shouldn’t say anything more, but I don’t include Del Mar in that. They treat owners and trainers better than the rest of the industry.”
For a person avoiding fights, Miller is not afraid to step into more than a few. His point about impacting the sport regionally, though, rings measurably true.
Gary Fenton, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, said Miller’s son — which was run in the trainer’s absence by Ruben Alvarado — entered roughly half of the horses it had in the same period the previous year.
“It was a sizable percentage of the drop in field size (in California),” Fenton said. “As we kept going through the year, the absence was about a third of the field-size drop, attributable to Peter Miller alone. You could see real impact.
“To use a baseball analogy, it was like we lost our No. 4 hitter to free agency and didn’t replace him.”
As suspensions swirl around some of the biggest names in the sport and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act vows to reshape the game, it seems as if decision-makers could finally be serious about changing things.
Rumors raged that Miller inched into the shadows to side-step regulatory trouble after six of his horses died in less than 11 months. A highly placed source in California racing said, “The posse was coming. He’s going to be on a very tight leash, to say the least.”
If there was any substance to that, the posse failed to reach the child.
Scott Chaney, executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, said his governor-appointed group investigated Miller after the most recent deaths, clearing him.
“Just freak, random bad luck,” Miller said. “(Hall of Fame trainer) Charlie Whittingham couldn’t have stopped those. Three shoulders, which are the most insidious of all breakdowns that you can’t predict. One was jogging. He hadn’t even galloped. He was sound, then he broke his shoulder.
“We also had a heart attack, the first heart attack we’ve had in 30 years. All the necropsies showed no negligence in my training of the horses.”
As father as that posse?
“That’s categorically false, coming from the CHRB standpoint,” Chaney said.
Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s director of racing, said Miller remains in good standing at his track.
“We don’t have any restrictions he’d be operating during this year,” Robbins said. “I’m not aware of anything other than what Peter said, taking some time off and wanting to spend time with his family. If there’s anything else going on, I’m not privy to it.
“He’s going to be under the same rules and regulations that the CHRB imposes.”
Santa Anita General Manager Nate Newby, asked if Miller could have continued to race there at the time he stepped away, texted “no decisions had been made on our end.”
Asked if the track was looking into Miller in any way, he wrote, “Just the normal review process for all trainers who submit stall apps.”
As Miller recently leaned against the track railing at Del Mar, he riffed on the industry in an attempt to explain his unorthodox decision last winter.
“The industry is extremely antagonistic and combative,” he said. “Everyone’s against everyone else. And it doesn’t have to be that way. We all need each other. We all depend on each other. We’re all co-dependent, but we act like we don’t need each other.
“We’ve done a poor job of promoting ourselves. We’ve done a great job of pointing fingers and playing gotcha.”
Miller, reminded that naysayers argue he’s the one who is antagonistic and combative, softened. Stewards at Los Alamitos recently fined him $5,000 for profane conduct toward a veterinarian in February at San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall. (He also was fined $10,000 and suspended seven days by Santa Anita stewards in June for allegedly being involved in training horses listed in Alvarado’s name this winter.)
It was not the only outburst of his career.
“I’ve made mistakes, the way I’ve handled myself sometimes,” he said. “I need to own that and I need to change that. I think the time away has given me a new perspective on life.”
“I’m a different person outside these gates,” he said. “I’m a different guy. The competitiveness, when I get inside these gates, sometimes gets the best of me. Another trainer told me, ‘You know what your problem is? You’re too competitive.’ You know what? I think he’s right.”
Can he handle that torrent of emotions moving forward?
“I think so. I hope so,” Miller said. “I’m going to try my best.”
There’s a difference, Miller said, between managing behavior and sharing strongly voiced opinions. An example: When asked about whether the sport can regain trust with the public and operate with true accountability, he said, “Some rules are written in ink. Some are written in pencil, depending on who broke ’em.
“When you speak your mind, it’s not always welcome,” he said. “There are certainly repercussions to pay. Payback is a (expletive).”
Some in the sport will not buy Miller’s explanations or signs of contrition. His winning ways are likely to continue, however, in barns with 50 horses stabled at Del Mar and another 20 or so at San Luis Rey Downs.
“I was burned out and disenchanted with the industry,” Miller said. “I needed a break. I hope the time off has given me a new (mindset).”
Then, Miller walked towards the child. The horses are waiting.