A conversation with Julie Miller
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Julie Miller enjoyed a memorable 2017. The year began with her induction into the Iowa Harness Racing Hall of Fame, where she joined her father, Owen Julius, and continued through the season with a string of stakes wins and notable Grand Circuit performances.
Miller's stable last year included millionaire trotter Devious Man and Yonkers Trot champion Top Flight Angel, who helped the Iowa native set her career high for purses with $4.67 million, a total that ranked fifth among all trainers in North America, while posting a 22-percent win rate.
Other stakes-winners for Miller last season included Hayden Hanover, who was the fastest 2-year-old male pacer of the year with a mark of 1:50, 3-year-old female trotter Overdraft Volo, 2-year-old female trotter Seviyorum, and 2-year-old male trotter Met's Hall.
Miller, who moved with husband Andy and children Tyler and Olivia to central New Jersey a dozen years ago, recently took time from her 2018 preparations to talk with the USTA's Ken Weingartner about her past, present, and future.
KW: You had a great year last year with a career high in earnings. What were your highlights?
JM: I'd say winning the Beal (with Devious Man) and the Yonkers Trot (with Top Flight Angel). Those were the top two highlights. Top Flight Angel is coming back this year and Devious Man went to stud at Blue Chip. I'm looking forward to both those opportunities; seeing little baby Deviouses running around and having Top Flight Angel.
KW: How do you think Top Flight Angel will come back?
JM: He's turned out at Walnridge right now. I went out and looked at him and I couldn't believe the growth and maturity. He was already a nice, big, strong colt. I can't wait for him to get back. That's a hard division. It's a hard division every year. The 4-year-old year is always difficult. We're just going to stake him conservatively, but I'm really excited to have him back in the barn.
KW: When is he coming back?
JM: The end of February. I'm waiting that long so I don't get him ready early. I'm forcing myself to wait. I haven't even brought in Met's Hall or Seviyorum yet. I know if I do, they'll be ready the first of May and I don't want them ready the first of May. I'm trying to hold my horses, literally.
KW: Is this something new or is what you've always done?
JM: It just depends on the situation; how many starts they had, how long the season was. If I turned out one early, I bring it in early. If I turned them out later, I bring them in later. They need that R&R. You can always tell when they come in because they're fresh and have matured. It's a real benefit. They need the time to develop.
KW: What were you most pleased with from last year?
JM: I would say Devious Man going over a million dollars. He's the first horse that Andy and I have ever owned part of that's done that. That's pretty exciting. He's up there with my horses. He had a lot of issues he dealt with and his consistency was amazing. To start racing in May in the New York Sire Stakes and Empire Breeders and go all the way to the Matron (in November) says a lot about a horse. I just can't say enough about how proud I am that he put his best foot forward every time I asked. He came out fighting like a champ. Horses like that don't come along all the time.
KW: How many horses do you have right now and how many are 2-year-olds?
JM: I have 60, with half being 2-year-olds.
KW: I know it's early, but how do you like your 2-year-olds so far?
JM: Like you said, it's early, but I like my group. My only frustration has been we had a lot of virus go through the barn, a lot of high fevers, in December. You can't train a sick horse. So it was just basically getting them healthy. The main thing at this time of year is just getting the fundamentals down. I just want to get them gaited and make sure they have good mannerisms before we start honing in on the actual training.
KW: Do you have a particular approach or program to get started?
JM: I never put it in terms of having an actual program, but we have a basic model that we approach all the horses with. Of course when you have 30 yearlings, now 2-year-olds, you start with that model and then adjust it to each horse and what benefits them. Like I said, you get the fundamentals in, and then you start to fine-tune each horse's program.
KW: We had two bad weeks recently with the cold and snow. How does the weather affect your schedule?
JM: Gaitway has done a heck of a job keeping the tracks open. But I'd say, compared to previous years, I'm a bit delayed. But it always seems to work out. When June comes around we all seem to be ready, whether you've been in Florida, New Jersey, or Canada. So I'm not fretting about anything just yet. If you want to be in the horse game, you better have a strong stomach because there are variables that you can't control. But the play always seems to come together when you want it to.
KW: Do you have 2-year-olds you really like at this point?
JM: I play my cards close to my vest (laughs). I'd rather have people be pleasantly surprised than put horses up on a pedestal right now. I'm going to keep it to myself for now. I'm pretty optimistic about the first-crop 2-year-olds; they're coming along nicely. I've been happy with them.
KW: You recently were voted a director of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey. Why did you want to become a director?
JM: It's my passion for the racing. I don't want to be on the sidelines, on the bench, complaining. I want to be on the court trying to make a difference. I'm really excited for the opportunity. I'm glad people thought enough of me to vote for me and I hope to contribute and be an asset.
KW: You grew up in Iowa, and your dad was a trainer. Is he still training horses?
JM: He trains with me every morning. He comes to the barn every day. He gave me my foundation in this sport and work ethic. I'm so blessed to have him here every day helping me out. I don't care how old you are, I still ask him for advice. A lot of time people focus on the new ways, but sometimes if you talk to a veteran you get way better advice.
KW: What was it like growing up? Was it all horses?
JM: No. My parents had real jobs. My dad was a counselor for the state for rehabilitation people and my mom (Ellen) drove a school bus. (Horses) were a part-time Iowa thing at the county fairs. It wasn't until I got older that we started racing at Quad City Downs and Fairmount (Park). That's when I learned about that aspect of the business. It was good experience for me.
KW: Did you always love the horses?
JM: Always. I stopped playing some sports in high school because I wanted to be with the horses. It was more important to be with your horse than anywhere else. I have a passion for it. I don't think you can do this sport if you don't have a love for it. You eat, sleep and breathe it. And I like that. It doesn't bother me a bit that it's that way.
KW: What other sports did you play?
JM: Volleyball, and I was really good at softball, but that was a summer sport so I quit after eighth grade. I played volleyball all four years and I was a pom-pom girl (laughing). Do they even have that anymore? I think it's just cheerleading. I varsity lettered in pom-poms and volleyball (laughs).
KW: Did you know this was the career you wanted?
JM: A hundred percent. I always wanted to drive and train. The more I experienced, the more horses I could sit behind, the better. The only problem is when you're an 18-year-old girl and you want to go out on your own, there's not many people going to give you a chance. So I thought I'd better go to college and get a degree. So that's when I got my bachelor's in science and graduated. After I graduated, my dad gave me two or three horses to take to Chicago to see what I could do. So in 1996 I took three horses to Sportsman's Park and that's how I started. Andy was driving and I was training. It just developed from a three-horse Iowa stable.
KW: You had just gotten married, right?
JM: Yep. I graduated in December of '95 and we got married that spring. Andy quit working for Tex Moats as his assistant trainer and we moved.
KW: Your dad has been a big influence on your life all along.
JM: Completely. Him and my mom. When you grow up in Iowa, you learn a lot of horsemanship because you don't have vets coming around all the time, shoers, feed people. We grew our own hay, we maintained our own track, my dad was the blacksmith, we shipped our own horses. You learn a lot if you're doing the whole job. You fix the fence, you drag the track, you empty the manure spreader, you bail the hay. I guess that maybe doesn't make you a better horse trainer, but you understand more. All those little things help, I think.
JM: I have a great staff. I attribute a lot of my success to the barn management and organization. We wouldn't be as successful as we are if we didn't have a great team.