It's a long way from 3 1/2-furlong races for $1,500 claimers at Shenandoah Downs to the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) at Churchill Downs. But Jim Miller is on track to make that journey.
Miller, a native of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., in the state's Eastern Panhandle region, is the owner of Aurelia's Belle, a 3-year-old filly gearing up for the May 2 Oaks. That's not bad for a guy who purchased his first Thoroughbred in 2010.
Members of Miller's family have been in the horse business for more than 30 years, so he found himself at the racetrack at any early age. At that time Charles Town Races and the now-defunct Shenandoah, located across the street from each other, made up a year-round circuit.
"I grew up picking up tickets off the floor at Charles Town," said Miller, 57. "And I did go to the races at Shenandoah. Those 3 1/2-furlong races there were pretty exciting."
Though his uncle, Norman Haymaker, was a Thoroughbred trainer, Miller didn't opt for that end of the business. Miller focuses on breeding Thoroughbreds with a strong interest in fillies and mares.
On the business side, he's in the "big infrastructure finance" business for projects such as airports, and he also has banking and real estate assets. He sits on the boards of various companies and, on the racing side, is on the board of directors of the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
Miller, who lives in Hagerstown, Md., purchased Aurelia's Belle, a Kentucky-bred by Lemon Drop Kid out of the Danzig mare Aurelia, for $170,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2012. He was pleasantly surprised that he didn't have to bid higher.
"She is from probably the number one family in the Stud Book," Miller said of Aurelia's Belle, who was bred by the Alexander-Grove-Matz partnership. "I was surprised to see her go for that price, but I was happy about it."
After Niall Brennan broke Aurelia's Belle, Miller turned the filly over to trainer Wayne Catalano, with whom he has had success in the form of multiple graded stakes-place Honey Chile and Amie's Dini. Catalano entered Aurelia's Belle for her career debut last October at Keeneland, and the filly promptly won a six-furlong maiden special weight event on Polytrack.
In her next start in early January at Gulfstream Park, Aurelia's Belle finished a closing third in the grade III Old Hat Stakes at six furlongs. In her next two starts, the Forward Gal Stakes and Davona Dale Stakes (both gr. II) at Gulfstream, Aurelia's Belle finished a strong second and third, respectively, behind undefeated Onlyforyou, a promising Malibu Moon filly who soon after was euthanized because of a condylar fracture.
Next up was the March 22 Bourbonette Stakes, a one-mile grade III event on Polytrack at Turfway Park. Aurelia's Belle kept close to an honest pace, took over in the lane and drew away comfortably to capture her first stakes.
"That race didn't take too much out of her," said Miller, who was on hand for the Bourbonette. "She's pretty firey. Just try to brush her and you'll find out. I think Gulfstream was the most difficult track for her, and she ran into a really good horse there. She's still really green; she was getting on the wrong lead, but I think we're past that now.
"She has worked at Churchill and got over the track easily. She's fine with the surface there. The competition (in the Oaks) will be tough but anything can happen, and she is bred to go long."
Miller believes Aurelia's Belle can run on any surface, and said he really wants to see her compete on the turf.
"We think she'll be a monster (on grass)," he said, "but that's entirely up to Wayne. He'll tell me what he thinks, and then he'll say she's telling us what she wants to do."
Miller keeps mares in West Virginia with Harold Shotwell and Keturah Obed-Letts, a former Charles Town jockey. In Kentucky he has mares at Mill Ridge Farm, where he relies on Headley Bell for advice on matings and auction purchases.
Miller has 46 horses in total and races around the country, though he continues to support the West Virginia-bred program. He said he has two West Virginia-breds by Candy Ride and two mares that were bred to Blame that will foal in the state.
As a breeder with an eye for fillies, Miller would like nothing more than to win the Kentucky Oaks. He plans to have about 18 family members with him at Churchill May 2.
"This is the most important filly race there is," Miller said. "My ultimate goal is to breed one of my own (fillies) that gets there; that's a hard proposition but we may. I love my horses almost to the point of no return, and so does my wife, Terry. She has always been supportive of what I do.
"Terry is also active with the horses. I have a carrot budget that would scare people."