Delvin Miller thinks the best day of his life was Jan. 27, 1974. That was when his pocket was picked of $1,800 in Paris. It helped, of course, that those quick hands got him while he was standing in the winner's circle at the Vincennes racetrack after watching his trotter, Delmonica Hanover, win the Prix d'Amerique—the most famous harness race in the world—and $100,000. "The only bad part," says Miller of that day in Paris, "is that I hated like hell to lose the money clip Perry Como had given me."
He laughs at the memory. Miller, 77, has gone through life smiling at its slings, laughing at its arrows. If ever there was a guy who could be pushed out of a top-floor window and comment favorably on the view all the way down, it would be Miller. "I've had a good life," he says. "Not many disappointments."
This outgoing, upbeat spirit goes a long way toward explaining how it has come to pass that Miller is now competing in his eighth decade. Eighth. Not just as an owner, shaking hands and collecting trophies in winner's circles, but as a driver, out there in a sulky behind an 1,100-pound standardbred. It's likely that Miller has performed in more decades—and certainly longer—than any other professional athlete. Much longer.
Jockey Bill Shoemaker, who retired last year (and was seriously injured in a car accident in April), competed in a mere six decades and for only 41 years. Miller is in his 62nd year of competition. Golfer Sam Snead also competed in six decades. Gordie Howe, hockey's legendary iron horse, played in a paltry five decades. And football's best known graybeard, George Blanda, hung in for a mere four decades. Explains Miller, "I drive horses as good as I can, which is pretty damn good. I'll know when I can't, and I'll quit."
Retirement plans? "I don't have any," says Miller.
Thank goodness. "Delvin," says Hall of Fame driver Stanley Dancer, 63, "is everybody's idol." One of Miller's best friends, golfer Arnold Palmer—Arnie has competed in five decades—says that what makes his buddy so good is that "racing is his heart and soul. He loves what he's doing and he thoroughly enjoys the competition." Says Miller, "I do get a kick out of racing."
But it's hard to think of something that Miller does not get a kick out of. It is impossible to be around him and not have a good time. He insists upon it. It's never too early or too late or the wrong place for him to listen to another story or to order another vodka and water.
Miller has cut back on his driving only to the extent that he now races exclusively when and where he wants. Last season, for example, he raced in Europe. His first win of 1990 came on Aug. 29 in Karlhorst, in East Berlin, where he hadn't driven in 31 years. Two days later, in Hamburg, Miller won three races and finished second in two others. This year Miller, who has half a dozen horses in training, is planning to participate in several stakes races at the Meadowlands (N.J.) raceway on Aug. 3, and in the Breeders Crown Races on Oct. 25 at Pompano Harness Track in Pompano Beach, Fla. Since he won his first race at a county fair in Carrollton, Ohio, in 1930, Miller has finished first in 2,435 races in the U.S., with purses amounting to $10,959,402. In 1950 he became the first driver ever to win this country's two most prestigious races, the Little Brown Jug (pacing) and the Hambletonian (trotting), in the same year. He was the sport's leading money-winner in 1950 and again in 1960. All told, he has won 267 stakes races.
Miller also figures that he will leave an estate of at least $10 million. His main love these days—after training and driving horses, of course—is the development of Meadowcroft Village, which features authentic buildings from America's past. After spending most of their married life on Meadow Lands, a nearby 220-acre homestead and breeding farm, Miller and his wife, Mary Lib, now live in Meadowcroft Village, which is about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.
Asked how much he has invested in Meadowcroft, Miller shrugs and says, "Oh, six...eight...maybe nine million. I don't know." The point to be made from Miller's reply is not that he is uninterested in money, but that money doesn't drive him. To Miller, money's real value is in generating more dinners, more gifts for friends, more trips abroad, more horses, more good times. Jockey Eddie Arcaro, winner of five Kentucky Derbys and 4,779 races (his career lasted through 31 years and four decades), says he will never forget winning the 1948 Kentucky Derby aboard Citation—not the race, but what happened later. "When I arrived back at LaGuardia Airport," recalls Arcaro, "Delvin greeted me—with a band. I tell you, Delvin cares about his friends. He keeps in touch. He doesn't neglect you."
Miller wasn't born with a silver bit in his mouth. Maybe that's why he so appreciates the good times money can create. He was born in 1913 in Woodland, Calif., where his father, Earl, died in an influenza epidemic five years later. Young Delvin was raised by his grandfather, Thomas Miller, who owned, bred, trained and drove standardbreds on his farm in Avella, Pa., the current site of Meadowcroft Village. In 1929, at 16, he drove a pacer named Donna Jones to a fourth-place finish in Burgettstown, Pa. That earned him $9 and led to a lifelong career. In 1933 Miller was packed and ready to enter Penn State, but the first day of the academic year and a chance to race at a county fair conflicted. The county fair won, in a not very close decision.
In 1943 Miller was drafted and, in a rare military match of man and ability, was sent to India to participate in the provisioning of pack mules for American and Chinese forces in the China-Burma-India theater. Three years and two Bronze Stars later, he resumed his racing career.
He also decided it was time to become an owner. In 1948, with $6,000 and the promise of some financial help from Duke Kelly, a Winston-Salem car dealer, Miller went off to a standardbred auction at Lexington, Ky. When the sale was hammered down, Miller thought he had bought an 8-year-old stallion for $20,100. But the auctioneer said the price was $21,000. Miller was furious, and it took Kelly to come up with the extra cash. Seven years later, in 1955, Miller sold the horse, Adios, for $500,000. "I'm a poor man," he said at the time, "and a poor man can't afford to own a horse as valuable as Adios." Of the 589 foals Adios produced over a 20-year career at stud, an incredible 500 won races, earning a total of $19,293,292. Says Miller, who bought back a one-third interest in the horse in 1956, "When I sold Adios, I stopped reading the funny papers and started reading The Wall Street Journal."
Adios, who died in 1965, is buried on the grounds of Meadow Lands. Miller purchased that 220-acre site and six buildings for $35,000 in 1946. He sold it four years ago for $600,000.
Miller has many stories of how luck often rules the game of racing. He once bought a trotter, Quick Pride, for $5,200. The colt made $179,514 racing as a 2-year-old, whereupon Miller sold him to Stanley Dancer for $350,000. That was 1971, and Quick Pride went on to win $231,210 for Dancer that year. But the following year he earned only $29,509, and died as a 4-year-old. In 1970 Miller again shelled out $5,000, this time for the mare Delmonica Hanover; the 1974 Prix D'Amerique winner became his alltime favorite racehorse and earned him $832,925 over her five-year career. He sold her for $300,000 in 1974. "I think good," says Miller of his talent for investing in standardbreds, "and I don't remember that bad."
Perhaps the most difficult memory test for Miller would be to recall a celebrity he hasn't met—and befriended—over the years. He points at pictures on the walls of the office he still maintains on Meadow Lands Farm: "There I am with Hoot Gibson. There's Ty Cobb and me. Jesse Owens and me. There's Hope and me." So, did Miller know Clark Gable? "No. But I knew his father." Miller went fishing with Babe Ruth. "It was fine," he says. "We caught some fish." He played golf with Joe Louis. There he is at the opening of Disney World with Shoemaker, Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle.
Miller used to order his vodka and water at the original Toots Shor's saloon on 51st Street in New York City. "If Toots liked you, he'd give you a special place," he recalls. Naturally, Miller had a special place, right up front where he could be seen whiling away the hours with politicians like Hubert Humphrey, actors like Don Ameche and, always, athletes.
Nothing much has changed, except that many of the old gang are gone—including Shor, and the saloon bearing his name is now down in the 30s, on a side street across from Madison Square Garden. But there are always new faces to meet and new places to hang out—and always the good times. Like the party in Miller's honor at Pompano to celebrate his entering his eighth decade of harness racing. The guests included Whitey Ford, Julius Boros, Palmer, former Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes and the Goodyear blimp, which cruised overhead.
Arcaro speaks for eight decades of horsemen and hundreds—nay, thousands—of people from all walks of life when he says, "I'm just so proud to be Delvin Miller's friend."
Miller's feats, like a 1:54 record mile with Arndon in '82, keep pals like Palmer happy.
[See caption above.]