Trainer Miller, 89, leaves behind more than wins

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Bruce Miller leads stable star and eventual Hall of Famer Lonesome Glory in 1998. Douglas Lees photo

Bruce Miller said it so sincerely, like it mattered to him. Lonesome Glory, the trainer’s best horse and America’s top steeplechaser, pulled a muscle in his back days before he was supposed to fly to England for an attempt on the 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

“I’m sorry to disappoint a lot of people,” he told me for the lead story of the March 13 Steeplechase Times newspaper. “It’s a bummer.”

Imagine worrying about disappointing other people when you would have preferred to simply be disappointed for and by yourself. Miller, 89, died Tuesday, April 9 and the news made me dig into old newspapers and remember his run with the best steeplechase horse in the country. In the face of the biggest disappointment of his career, Miller was sorry to let down Americans planning trips To England, the management of Cheltenham Racecourse and his horse’s fans.

The Pennsylvanian trained steeplechase and flat horses – five-time champion and Hall of Famer Lonesome Glory tops the list – for more than 40 years, won a National Steeplechase Association training championship in 1996, led the list by earnings in 1995 and 2000, and trained additional champions All Gong and Pierrot Lunaire. Miller won the Maryland Hunt Cup three times – with Our Steeplejack in 1985, Solo Lord in 2001 and Make Me A Champ in 2005. Miller’s daughter Blythe (1994 and 1995) and son Chip Miller (1996) won NSA jockey championships.

Not bad for a guy who almost became a dairy farmer.

Miller’s father Fulmer was the huntsman of the Huntingdon Valley Hunt in Pennsylvania and operated a local horse shipping business. Miller showed and foxhunted through high school. Briefly, cows seemed like a better way to make a living and he said he started a small herd before joining the U.S. Army in the mid-1950s. While at Fort Bragg (now Fort Liberty) in North Carolina, he rode with the Moore County Hounds in Southern Pines and in the 1957 Sandhills Cup and Carolina Cup timber races. Soon, he gave up on the cows and started a horse business after the Army.

“I gave lessons, tried to make hunters, worked as a whip,” he said in 1996.

Bruce Miller and Eastmac (center) leap the third fence of the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1973. Douglas Lees photo

Miller rode races as an amateur, winning a single NSA-sanctioned race – the open timber at Monmouth County aboard Durock in 1976. He rode in four Maryland Hunt Cups – falling at the fifth fence in 1964 with Chestnut Chief and riding Eastmac three times. They fell at the third in 1972, finished second in 1973 and were third in 1975.

Equibase credits Miller with 561 lifetime wins as a trainer – from 1977 through 2017. Flat horses mainly filled the stalls through much of the 1980s with high marks of 37 wins in 1984 and 43 in 1985. Steeplechasers gradually became the main performers at Miller’s Fox Ferret Farm, a 20-acre spot adjacent to larger tracts owned by Derry Meeting Farm, George Strawbridge and others near Cochranville, Pa. Assisted by a rotating cast in the barn including Blythe, Chip, Trish Daniels, Miller’s then wife Nancy, Eddie Graham, Jody Petty and others, Miller developed racehorses on the Chester County hills, through foxhunting and in the farm’s pond.

Our Steeplejack’s Hunt Cup victory helped attract horses and owners to the barn, but real progress came in 1989 when Miller won 20 races (15 over jumps). The prior year, major flat owner Virginia Kraft Payson had sent Grade 1 turf winner Uptown Swell to Miller. In 1989, the son of Master Derby won his first four starts over jumps and finished second in the New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga.

Two years later, Lonesome Glory joined the barn and nothing would ever be the same. Kay Jeffords’ gangly 3-year-old ran three times on the flat at NSA meets, then won his hurdle debut at Fair Hill on the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase undercard. He ran eight times in 1992, winning four over jumps and two on the flat topped by an unprecedented novice hurdle triumph at Cheltenham in December. The victory earned Jeffords a $75,000 bonus, made Miller the first American trainer to saddle an English hurdle/chase winner and gave Lonesome Glory the Eclipse Award as America’s champion steeplechaser as much for making history as anything he did on the track. He won it again the next year thanks to an 8 1/2-length romp in the Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park, and stayed a force in the division through 1999. His 1995 season – second in the Temple Gwathmey and wins in the Iroquois, A.P. Smithwick, New York Turf Writers and Colonial Cup plus a chase win at England’s Sandown Racecourse – is one of the best by an American steeplechaser. Read a little more about that Iroquois win.

Lonesome Glory won 17 American jump races including three Colonial Cups, two Carolina Cups, the Iroquois, Smithwick, Turf Writers, Breeders’ Cup, Temple Gwathmey and Grade 1 races at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. His $965,809 in purse earnings are still third all-time. On top of that, he won twice over jumps in England (one hurdle, one chase) and earned another $325,000 in bonuses. Combined (flat, jump, U.S., England), he won 24 of 44 starts, earned $1,325,868 and was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2005. He’s the only horse to win five steeplechase championships. Belmont Park’s September Grade 1 jump race is run in his memory.

“He’s one of a kind, that’s for sure,” Miller said about his star after winning Keeneland’s Royal Chase in 1999. “You try to look for what he has in other horses – but most of the time it’s just not there.”

Miller found plenty of success with others, even if they couldn’t live up to the example set by Lonesome Glory.

All Gong won a title in 2000, a year after Lonesome Glory’s retirement. Pierrot Lunaire followed in 2012. Less-heralded stalwarts Hurler, Grenade, Serenity Prayer, Yellowroad, Pelagos, Popular Gigalo, High Card and Cheering News provided plenty of thrills. Grenade won at least one jump race at Saratoga for five consecutive years. Mon Villez won Montpelier’s Noel Laing Stakes three times. Miller saddled four Iroquois winners. His three Maryland Hunt Cup winners spanned 30 years. Miller won a single graded stakes on the flat, the Grade 3 Budweiser Turf Classic at the Meadowlands with Milesius.

Bruce Miller studies while waiting for a race at the Iroquois meet in 2014. Tod Marks photo

Though he stayed involved with horses and was a regular at steeplechase meets, Miller gradually wound down his training career and officially saddled his final runner in 2017 (Classical Art was third at the Iroquois meet). Beyond racing, he long held the position of field master with the Cheshire Foxhounds in Unionville, Pa. – applying the same horsemanship and knowledge of the hunt country to that pursuit as he did training. In 2022, he was on hand when grandson Teddy Davies rode Vintage Vinnie to victory in the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Miller broke a hip nearly two years ago, which cost him some mobility but did little to diminish his interest or enthusiasm.

“He had a wonderful life, and had a ton of fun and success,” said oldest daughter Ann Miller. “Even after he broke his hip, he never got unhappy or anything. He was at Fair Hill watching horses gallop not that long ago. We had sushi – and Tastykake Krimpets – for dinner Monday night.”

She said her father had breakfast Tuesday morning, was awake and alert for several visitors that day and died that night.

Survivors include children Chip, Blythe and Ann, sister Brenda Redfield, brother Butch Miller, grandchildren Teddy and Scarlet Davies and several nieces and nephews. A memorial service is pending. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Bethany Presbyterian Church, P.O. Box 17, Mendenhall, PA 19357 or bethanychurchpa.org.

Listen to Wednesday’s Steve Byk show about Miller.

Read more about Lonesome Glory from the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation.