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Anne M. Eberhardt

Ky. Derby Trail: It's Miller's Time, Too

Like all quarters, General Quarters is a two-sided coin. So far, it’s only come up heads, with the face of Tom McCarthy and his Cinderella story receiving all the press. But a flip of the coin to the tails side will reveal the faded and forgotten face of Mark Miller.


Miller’s name doesn’t get mentioned any longer. There wasn’t a single mention of him in Sunday’s stories in USA Today, Associated Press, and in the Louisville Courier-Journal, just to name a few. Not to diminish McCarthy’s amazing story of hard work, dedication, and perseverance, but let’s not forget Miller’s role in this fairy tale. Miller took over General Quarters’ training at Tampa this winter while McCarthy was back in Kentucky, helped get the colt through several physical and mental issues, and saddled him to two troubled second-place finishes, in the Inaugural Stakes and Pasco Stakes, and then to a break-out performance in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) before McCarthy decided to put the horse back in his name. McCarthy had trained the horse last year after claiming him in his career debut for $20,000 from Ken Ramsey and trainer Wesley Ward. In his five subsequent starts at 2, the son of Sky Mesa  had a second in an allowance race at Keeneland and a third in an allowance race at Churchill Downs.


In the condensed version of the story, McCarthy and Miller met last year while stabled at the Sports Spectrum’s Trackside training facility near Churchill Downs, where each would help the other out around the barn. McCarthy, a former teacher and high school principal, had only the one horse, and Miller had three.


According to Miller, when he applied for stalls at Tampa Bay Downs this past winter, he asked McCarthy if he wanted to stable General Quarters at Tampa rather than have him spend the winter up north in Kentucky. He felt Tampa had an excellent stakes program, starting with six- and seven-furlong stakes. If the colt did well in those races, they could take it to the next level. McCarthy agreed, but he was recovering from skin cancer, which prevented him from following the colt down. Miller took over the training of General Quarters, who began racing in his name.


Miller had several issues with General Quarters that he had to deal with. The colt was tough to handle on the track, and Miller had to put in a lot of time and effort to get him to relax. He’d have him stand at the gap for as long as 20 minutes if necessary until the horse was able to stand on his own for 30 seconds without acting up. After a while, General Quarters would stand on the track for several minutes with his ears up and watch the horses go by, and then go out to train. Miller paid credit to exercise rider Sammy Jiminez for his help in straightening the colt out. General Quarters also overcame a case of thrush with the help of Miller’s farrier Billy Eagleson. Everything was coming together. The 54-year-old Miller and the 75-year-old McCarthy were hoping their strapping gray colt would take them to places never before dreamed of.


“Mark’s whole life is training horses; he’s always at the barn doing something,” said Tampa Bay stakes coordinator Duane “Duby” Christo. “He trained General Quarters until after the Sam Davis and put in an awful lot of work on that horse.. He’s a great guy, real polite, and whenever he has a horse in, he always comes in and waits for the draw. I don’t know what he’d do if he wasn’t training horses.”


In the six-furlong Inaugural Stakes, General Quarters stumbled so badly at the start his nose hit the ground. Coming from dead-last in the field of 12, he rallied from 10th at the eighth pole, 12 lengths back, to finish second, beaten a length in 1:10 4/5. That’s when Miller realized he had something.


In the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes, General Quarters took the lead at the eighth pole, but pulled himself up, and was beaten a length by Musket Man, earning a respectable 90 Beyer number.


McCarthy, meanwhile, finally had been able to make it down to Florida and moved in to Miller’s apartment. He would come to the barn each morning helping out with the horse, grooming him. Miller kidded at the time, “He’s the best groom I’ve got.” It was decided to take the blinkers off the colt for the 1 1/16-mile Sam Davis Stakes. General Quarters ran a sensational race, drawing off to win by 3 1/2 lengths, earning a whopping 102 Beyer. Just like that, Miller and McCarthy had themselves a Kentucky Derby horse.


But one day later, Miller was no longer General Quarters’ trainer. McCarthy informed him he had decided to take over his training once again. The colt was moved to a different barn, as Miller needed the stall for another horse.


“I remember the day after the Sam Davis, I saw him and he said, ‘Did you hear what happened?’ Christo recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, you won the Sam Davis.’ Then he told me what happened. He was pale.”


For Miller, it’s been a difficult separation, knowing all the work he had put into the horse. But he also realized that it was inevitable.


“It hurts, but I’m trying not to let it bother me,” he said. “It’s his horse and he has the right to do whatever he wants with him. I knew pretty much that when the horse went back to Kentucky Tom was going to take him back. He trained him in Kentucky and he’s a Kentucky man. I understand that. All he would have to do is say in one of these articles, ‘I sent this horse down to my friend Mark Miller in Florida and he really did a nice job of getting him on the right track.’ That’s all I need. But, oh well, that’s the way it is, and if you can’t take it you better get out of the game. I know that I trained this horse when he made the cover of the Blood-Horse, I helped straighten him out, and it’s always going to say on his record, ‘Previously trained by Mark Miller.’


“Hey, I’m no miracle worker. All I did was take the horse and change some equipment, slow his pace down in his training and get him to relax, and work on his feet. Basically, I kept him happy. Yeah, it’s hard, but I have four other horses here that I love and who need and deserve my attention. I am happy for the horse, because he is such a cool horse. Although he required a lot of work on the track, in the barn he was very laid back and easy to work on. I don’t care what you had to do to him – grooming, working on his legs and his feet, doing up the stall -- he was never a problem. He just has a great personality. I love Sky Mesa and (broodmare sire) Unbridled's Song, so he’s got the credentials to be a very good horse and he’s only going to get better. He’s got the size, he’s got the intelligence; and he’s got the temperament. Believe me, he’s the real deal.


“I know it’s going to be especially tough when I come back to Kentucky at the end of the month with all the publicity he’s going to get. I realize Tom is on a dream, and he takes good care of the horse. And I’ll always give him credit for a hell of a claim. I didn’t claim that horse, he did. I’ll bet the three people he out-shook (for the claim) are just kicking themselves. What’s most frustrating about losing him is that I love the horse. Man, I love that horse.”


Quarter master


No matter how you want to look at it, a retired high school principal and prostate cancer survivor who claimed a horse for $20,000 and has now won the grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and is on his way to the Kentucky Derby with his only horse is a story the media will consume with a ravenous appetite. You can’t get much smaller than McCarthy, and here he is competing against Coolmore with its $3.7 million horse, Sheikh Mohammed and his $2.1 million horse, and the powerful IEAH, WinStar, and Zayat Stables. As for the Blue Grass itself, General Quarters had a perfect pace scenario, settling in a good spot in fifth, about three lengths off a dawdling pace of :49 and 1:13 1/5. Two other two-turn races on the card – allowance events for fillies – were run in :48 and 1:12 1/5 and :48 2/5 and 1:12. The slow fractions sucked in Theregoesjojo, Patena, and Massone, whose best races have been when they were given the opportunity to close in the stretch. Only General Quarters was right where he wanted to be. As a result, he was able to turn up the heat and come home his final three-eighths in :36 flat. A horse of that caliber is not going to get beat closing that fast.


Hold Me Back, a stone closer, was given too much to do after circling six wide turning for home, and even his :11 4/5 final eighth wasn’t good enough to catch General Quarters. But it was an excellent Derby prep for the Lane’s End (gr. II) winner. He was expected to regress a bit returning in three weeks after his powerful comeback race off a four-month layoff. If he can handle the dirt this time and prove his Remsen (gr. II) performance was an aberration, he is going to make his presence felt in a big way on May 2. Massone hung tough to finish third after a big early move from eighth to second on the backstretch. He is one of the bubble horses right now as far as graded earnings, along with Mr. Hot Stuff, Flying Private, Join in the Dance, and Take the Points.


General Quarters certainly has the pedigree to go on, especially being inbred to top stamina influence Round Table. His sire influences in his first four generations in addition to Round Table read like a Who’s Who: Unbridled, Danzig, A.P. Indy, Storm Cat, Secretariat, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Mr. Prospector, Fappiano, and Caro. As Miller said, he has all the tools, and he has the running style to get a great position in the Derby. A strong, rugged colt like this with excellent tactical speed and the ability to rate and come home fast is always going to be dangerous. His only poor effort this year, a fifth in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), was attributed to a number of reasons, including a rough trip and traffic problems.


It will be interesting now to see what jockeys Eibar Coa (General Quarters and Musket Man) and Garrett Gomez (Dunkirk and Pioneerof the Nile) decide in the next week or so. Whatever they decide, there are going to be two red-hot Derby mounts up for grabs.


Perfect prep for Papa


It’s difficult to know what to make of the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) and what kind of impact it will have on the Kentucky Derby. Only the winner, Papa Clem, and possibly the fourth-place finisher, Win Willy, have any shot of making the Derby.


Papa Clem is a tough, consistent horse, who showed a whole new dimension by coming from fifth to wear down a stubborn Old Fashioned, who unfortunately came of the race with a slab fracture. But it must be noted that Old Fashioned pretty much cooked himself by setting fractions of :22 3/5 and :46 and failing to relax at any point, leaving the door open for a good horse to come and get him, especially with a sluggish final five-eighths in 1:03 and three-eighths in :38. The horse closing fastest of all from last, getting beat only 1 1/4 lengths, was 26-1 shot Summer Bird, who had only two career starts and was coming off a maiden victory, earning a 78 Beyer. He still has an outside chance of making the Derby cut if his connections decide they want to keep that option open.


Rebel (gr. II) winner Win Willy regressed a bit off that race, as horses often do after a bang-up performance in their first two-turn race. The son of Monarchos was beaten only 3 1/4 lengths, rallying from eighth, but at this point we really don’t know how good he is or how much he’ll move forward off this race. If they continue on to the Derby with him, he still could be a factor in the stretch.


As for Papa Clem, he’s a horse who always has to be respected, even more so now with his ability to rate off a fast pace. Many thought he would either set the pace in the Arkansas Derby or be no worse than second. He has enough stamina to get the 10 furlongs and we know that he fits in California with Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge . So, he should make some noise at Churchill Downs; we just don’t know how much, as the scenario of the Arkansas Derby – fast early and slow late -- really didn’t tell us that much.


In other Derby news:


-- Chris Block, trainer of Illinois Derby (gr. II) runner-up Giant Oak, said a decision on the colt’s Derby status will be made later this week. From all indications, it looks as if the son of Giant's Causeway  will try for the roses. He currently is stabled at Hawthorne.


-- At the present time, there are five Derby horses on the grounds at Churchill Downs – I Want Revenge, Desert Party , Regal Ransom, General Quarters, and Musket Man, with West Side Bernie due to arrive Monday. California shippers Pioneerof the Nile and Chocolate Candy are scheduled to arrive this Thursday, April 16. Also on the grounds is likely Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) favorite Rachel Alexandra.


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