The Miller family's steeplechase prowess has long been a given, but the juggernaut blew to a new level on a windy fall day in New Jersey. All Gong, trained by Bruce and ridden by his daughter Blythe, won the $250,000 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase (NSA-I) at the Far Hills Races Oct. 28 in a 3 1/4-length romp over eight opponents. Popular Gigalo, trained and ridden by Chip Miller (Bruce's son and Blythe's younger brother), finished second in the 2 5/8-mile stakes to keep 75% of the race's purse in the same family.
"I was rooting for Blythe because she was on my horse, but I had my eye on Chip too," said Bruce. "It's nice to (see Chip) finish second--you couldn't ask for anything better for the family."
Owned by longtime steeplechase supporter Calvin Houghland, All Gong was overlooked before the race thanks to a quality field that included 1998 champion Flat Top and multiple graded stakes winners Ninepins, Rowdy Irishman, Campanile, Master McGrath, and Invest West. A winner of one race in the U.S., the Atlanta Cup (NSA-I) in April, All Gong fit somewhere in the second tier of race contenders, especially after a 14-length defeat in his Breeders' Cup prep three weeks earlier.
"He didn't run his race at all that day," said Blythe. "I was happy he settled, but he was never his competitive self. I was fifth off the bridle and that's not him. We think maybe he was a little sick or under the weather that day. You have to throw that race out."
The race changed dramatically with the late scratches of Flat Top and Invest West due to tendon injuries in their final workouts. On the course, things changed too as Campanile raced too close to the pace early and tired late; Ninepins and Master McGrath looked their ages, 13, for a change; Rowdy Irishman didn't get the soft turf he favors.
And All Gong came up huge.
The 6-year-old son of Kris sat just off the pace set by Master McGrath and Campanile during the race's early stages. As the nine-horse field moved to the backstretch the final time, All Gong moved to the front, and was a target for a host of would-be challengers over the 11th, 12th, and 13th (of 14) fences. Spring Salute made a run, and dropped back. Ninepins ranged up, and faltered. Allgrit threatened, and hung. Master McGrath tried to keep up, and couldn't.
All Gong just kept galloping. The burly dark bay still led on the final turn and was two in front at the top of the stretch. Only Allgrit and the late-running Popular Gigalo had a chance. The latter, making his first steeplechase start in 14 months, came from far back to loom dangerously but was no match for the winner. Allgrit was third, followed by Master McGrath, Rowdy Irishman, Ninepins, Spring Salute, Double Leaf, and Campanile.
The winner covered the distance in a course record 4:53.90 while making most of the running on a firm turf course.
"On the backside the last time, I didn't want to go to the lead. I wanted to let them go by me and follow them," said Blythe of a gang of horses moving into stalking positions. "But then I thought maybe I shouldn't get behind that many horses. I didn't want to discourage my horse so I decided to pull out and let them push me along. They pushed me down the backside and I stayed in front without ever asking him."
All Gong maintained that speed around the final turn and found enough reserve to take a clear lead up the hill into the final fence. The winner earned $137,500 to take a commanding lead in the race for the steeplechase Eclipse Award. The only horse to capture two non-restricted grade I National Steeplechase Association stakes this season, All Gong has won two of four starts and $218,000 this year. He can erase all doubt about a championship with a win in the Colonial Cup (NSA-I) on Nov. 18 in Camden, S.C.
Blythe Miller, who won the last Breeders' Cup Steeplechase with five-time steeplechase champion Lonesome Glory in 1993 and picked up her fourth graded stakes tally of 2000, said her horse is still improving.
"He's hard on himself, so he's always playing at the mercy of the race and how it sets up," said the jockey. "He's getting more sensible. I can hold him, and he will wait there honestly. Before he wouldn't wait and would wear himself down. He's learning that when I say wait, I mean wait and relax, not wait and keep dragging me."
Houghland, an 83-year-old resident of Nashville, Tenn., continued a successful run with a horse he selected on a visit to England. Houghland rode as an amateur jockey in the 1940s (including a win in the 1943 Iroquois Steeplechase--now a grade I--aboard Frederick II), and purchased All Gong with an eye toward winning his hometown race again.
"I still haven't won the Iroquois (All Gong was second in May), but we were close and this is pretty nice," he said. "I thought Blythe rode one of the headiest races I've ever seen and I've seen a lot of them."
Bred in England by the Kris Syndicate and Kirtlington Stud, All Gong won once on the flat and three times over hurdles in England for trainer Nicky Henderson in 1998-99, before being sold to Houghland on the advice of trainer Paul Weber. Sent to Miller last year, All Gong was winless from starts in May and October.
Renewed this year after a seven-year hiatus, the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase lived up to its role as the country's richest steeplechase event. Even with the injury defections (and the scratch of Australian representative Logician because of the firm turf), All Gong prevailed over a talented group and the sprint down the backstretch the final time was a memorable run.
"He's not Lonesome Glory, but he's a nice horse," said Blythe Miller. "We went an honest pace the whole way, and that was a good race."