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Hovdey: Miller barn has it going every which way

Saturday, November 18th, 2017

The crew is still a little giddy at the Pete Miller barn at San Luis Rey Downs, even these two weeks after winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with Roy H and finishing 1-2 in the Turf Sprint with Stormy Liberal and Richard’s Boy.

On Friday morning, a playful Richard’s Boy was getting a bath, his mottled gray coat showing signs of cool nights, while Stormy Liberal tortured his hay rack nearby and took toothy shots at anyone dumb enough to pass within range. No one took them seriously.

“I guess we’ve got a right to feel pretty good,” Miller said later in the day. “And they all seem none the worse for wear.”

Several trainers have finished first and second in Breeders’ Cup events, including Wayne Lukas, Shug McGaughey, Michael Stoute, Bobby Frankel, Eoin Harty, and Bob Baffert. And winning two in a day is impressive, but far from unprecedented.

Maybe that’s why Miller is setting himself an even greater challenge, when he tries to become the first American trainer to win the Group 1, 1,200-meter Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin on Dec. 10. Stormy Liberal, a son of Stormy Atlantic, is confirmed to run in the $2.3 million event, while Richard’s Boy is on the fence, awaiting a last-minute invitation. Both 5-year-old geldings are owned by Gary Hartunian’s Rockingham Ranch.

The Hong Kong Sprint was inaugurated in 1999 as part of a splashy international program. The race has been dominated by runners based in Hong Kong, although Australia and Japan have broken through with wins.

As for American invaders, only one horse in the history of the Sprint has even hit the board. That was Big Jag, who was third in 1999.

“I know we’re up against it,” Miller said. “They certainly want you to come, but I don’t think they necessarily want you to win.”

American runners who spend their lives running, galloping, and even walking counterclockwise already are at a disadvantage. To that end, Miller gave Stormy Liberal the first of a series of right-handed workouts on Thursday at San Luis Rey, with a half-mile under Gilbert Estrella.

“It should have been fairly simple to figure out, that going a half-mile on a mile track is the same either direction,” Miller said. “But we’re racetrackers, so we spent some time thinking about it, counting the poles.”

Stormy Liberal ended up working from the training track wire, up the stretch and around the final turn to the half-mile pole on the backstretch.

“He started on his left lead all the way to the three-sixteenths pole, switched to his right around the turn, then switched back to his left,” Miller said. “It was a picture-perfect 49-and-one.”

Miller has received permission to work Stormy Liberal clockwise around a deserted track twice more in the coming weeks before his planned departure on Dec. 1. The trainer added that he would wait to put Richard’s Boy on a clockwise work program until he was a definite for the race.

“I’ll be taking two horses to Hong Kong,” Miller said. “If Richard’s Boy doesn’t get in, Stormy Liberal will be accompanied by my Grade 2 stakes-winning pony, Appealing Tale.”

In the meantime, Miller must be hyper-aware of just about everything his Hong Kong horses consume, sniff, or rub up against. Few racing jurisdictions are more strict when it comes to pre-race testing.

“There shouldn’t be any issues with our horses,” Miller said. “But with a foreign racing jurisdiction with different rules, you just never know.

“They play a little cat-and-mouse with you,” Miller noted. “If you want them to do a test before shipping, they want you to tell them what to test for, rather than testing for everything. What if there’s something in a supplement we’ve been giving that tests clean over here, but might be illegal in trace amounts over there? It should be, ‘Here’s my blood – if you find something, we don’t want to put you to the trouble of coming over there.’ ”

Miller found out the hard way in 2006, when he took the graded stakes-winning 3-year-old Fast Parade to Hong Kong for the Sprint. After testing clean at home by the UC-Davis laboratory before he left, Fast Parade’s Hong Kong test revealed a trace amount – by its standards – of a then-legal anabolic steroid. He was scratched.

Miller’s hot hand in the Breeders’ Cup has not cooled. He had won with 10 of his 31 Del Mar meet starters through Thursday, and on Sunday he will try to win the $100,000 Cary Grant Stakes for the third straight year with Solid Wager, a 6-year-old son of Birdonthewire.

Solid Wager has not won in seven starts since he finished in a dead heat for first with stablemate St. Joe Bay in the Grade 3 Midnight Lute at Santa Anita last Dec. 31.

“I don’t know if he’s lost a step or what,” Miller said. “But he’s run well, and certainly capable of winning this race.”

The competition in the seven-furlong event will come from Tribal Storm, Edwards Going Left, and the comebacking Smokey Image.

“What do I get if he wins it a third time?” Miller wondered. “A Cary Grant DVD?”

Sure thing. Why not? He can choose between “The Grass Is Greener” and “Walk Don’t Run.”

 

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Photo Credits:   Vassar Photography (Northern CA)  |  Benoit Photo (Southern CA)  |  Michael J. Marten (Southern CA)


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