Archdeacon: ‘Buckeye Battle’ to benefit tornado victims

Brett Miller has won over 8,400 races in his career and $89.3 million in purses.

He once won 10 of the 13 races on a card at Northfield Park. He won Breeders Crown races with both the super filly Pure Country and the inspirational, back from injury Racing Hill.

He’s been the runner-up in the prestigious North America Cup (twice) and the Canadian Pacing Derby. He won the Senior Jug at the Delaware (Ohio) Fairgrounds and the Adios Pace – with Racing Hill — at The Meadows.

Since returning to live in Ohio this year, the 46-year-old harness driver has won the driving title at Miami Valley Raceway earlier this year and is now the leading driver at Hollywood Dayton Raceway, which ends its meet at the end of the month.

“This is something I still love to do, but for me anymore the most rewarding thing is being able to drive a horse for somebody who doesn’t have very many horses and might be struggling,” Miller said. “For me, to do good with one of their horses – to win for them – that’s the most enjoyment I can possibly get now.

“I want to do something good for someone who needs it.”

Tonight Miller and nine other drivers – five from Hollywood Dayton Raceway and five from Northfield Park just outside Cleveland – will be doing just that for people beyond the track who are in real need.

Dayton Raceway is putting on the “Buckeye Battle” — an eight-race challenge which will pit drivers from the northern part of the state against those from the south.

Miller heads the Dayton team that includes Jeremy Smith, Tyler Smith, Kayne Kauffman and Josh Sutton.

The Northfield drivers are Aaron Merriman, the reigning national dash champion, Kurt Sugg, Chris Lems, Greg Grismore and David Lake.

Post positions will be divvied up equally, horses will be drawn at random and points will be awarded in the order of finishes. Post time is 6:15 p.m.

But this is about more than bragging rights or the extra $3,000 in purse money – the drivers are all donating their Buckeye Battle winnings – it’s about giving back to those in need in our community.

The drivers — and the track – are raising money for the Greater Dayton Disaster Relief Fund, which is monitored by the Dayton Foundation. The money is earmarked for Dayton-area neighborhoods devastated by the Memorial Day tornados.

Folks at Dayton Raceway know they were lucky. One of the tornadoes devastated neighborhoods just south of the track. Another hit to the north.

And each of the drivers has something to be thankful for in his career, as well:

Kauffman resurrected his life after a deadly barn fire destroyed his operation at Lebanon Raceway a decade ago.

Miller was nearly killed in a race spill at Northfield in 2004. His horse went down and dumped him onto the track. A horse coming behind him stomped on his face and, in his words, “just about ripped my nose off.”

He underwent a pair of plastic surgeries, was administered pain killers and then had a real battle to get off the medication and resume his career.

With help, he did. And his racing soared to even greater heights than before.

Born into racing

Miller was born into racing. Both of his grandfathers – Clyde Miller and A.J. Price – operated stables and his dad, Del Miller, is a well-known trainer and once drove.

His cousin, David Miller, is considered one of the sport’s all-time great drivers and is in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame.

As a youngster Brett began caring for his dad’s horses, which then were stabled at Lebanon Raceway. The family eventually moved to northeast Ohio and their racing operations to Northfield Park.

That’s where Brett began his driving career, though he had minimal success until he was embraced by the late trainer, John Lee, who put him in the sulkies behind his horses.

In 2001, Miller won the Rising Star of the Year award presented by the U.S. Harness Writers Association (USHWA). Three years later, the group’s Ohio chapter gave him its Winner’s Circle Award.

While he missed a few months after that terrible 2004 spill at Northfield, Miller said the toughest comeback was overcoming his reliance on the medication.

“I had gotten addicted to pain pills and that was a nighmare,” he said the other day.

In May of 2007, a urine test at Northfield detected morphine in his system and he was suspended for a year. Thanks to the help of trainer Dan Daly and Stacey Van Huizen, who soon became his wife, he conquered the problem.

Back then Ohio racing was struggling – the best horses and trainers were elsewhere, the purses were minimal — and Miller decided to move closer to the action.

In 2008 he relocated to The Meadows outside Washington, Pa. and six years later he moved further east – to New Jersey – to be in the middle of the most lucrative racing circuits. He quickly made his mark at places like the Meadowlands, Yonkers, Pocono Downs and Harrah’s Philadelphia and for three years in a row he averaged around $7.7 million in purses.

“Before I went out East I thought I had had to be there to drive in the big races,” he said.” I felt I could adjust to the racing —and I could — but the biggest adjustment was the lifestyle. The hustle, the traffic, the fast life.

“I don’t want to take anything away from all that or bad mouth anything, but I’ve got to admit, when I was out there, I never, ever got to enjoy any of the big races I won. We were always rushing, running to cars and getting on airplanes to go someplace else.

“It was really a grind and I was never home. I never saw my wife or kids. I’m not exaggerating. I worked every day. It got to be so much that it wore on my wife and I. And to make it, we had to make a change.”

Buckeye resurgence

Luckily for Miller, Ohio racing had made a resurgence in recent years with the influx of money from casinos that now operate tracks like Hollywood Dayton and Miami Valley Raceway.

Miller and his wife returned this year and now live in Columbus. They have two children – ages 8 and 10 – and he has a 13-year-old son and a 22-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

Now he just drives to one track – Miami Valley beginning in January, Scioto Downs in the summer, Dayton Raceway from September to December – for the entire racing season.

The races and the purses might not be as big as out East, but he’s still doing well.

Going into Thursday night’s card at Dayton Raceway, he had had 2,878 starts this year, (No. 2 all time) won 490 races (his most wins in 14 years) and already has earned $5,815,340 (No. 5 in his 28-year career.)

“We might not have the big, big races here and on North America Cup Night or Meadowlands Pace Night when I’m watching the races from here, it kind of sucks that I’m not out there driving in them,” he admitted. “But truthfully, other than that one night, it doesn’t bother me.

“I’m glad to be here. It’s good for me and my family. I’m able to do so much more here.”

One of those things comes tonight, when he and nine other drivers go to “battle” for this community.

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