Marcus Miller, 20, has been around horses and tracks since he can remember. A little too tall to be a jockey, Miller opted to use his horse sense and light hands to be a driver.
And despite his youth, he is considered one of the premier sulky drivers in the business, garnering more than a $500,000 in purses by mid-year and amassing $1 million in winnings since he started driving professionally.
Admittedly, genetics may have played a part in his success.
Miller's father is Erv Miller, who keeps a stable of racing hopefuls at the Illinois State Fairgrounds and in New Jersey. Marcus' uncle, Andy, also is one of the premier drivers in the business, racing primarily at the Meadowlands Race Track in New Jersey.
"Father's pride aside," said Erv Miller, "Marcus is really good. He started in amateur and worked his way up. Driving is the easiest way to make money in this sport, but it's really competitive. You have to really want to win, and you have to beat some really experienced drivers."
"I knew when he was younger he was going to be good at it," he added.
Erv Miller said there are occasions when Marcus drives a horse against an entry of his father's. Marcus said his father roots for the horse from the Erv Miller stables, but his mother roots for her son.
Marcus, who is back in Springfield at least once a week and at the stables here, won his first race when he was 15, but it's only been in the past year that he's started driving anybody's horses.
"Before I was 12, I really had no interest in driving," he said. "My dad got me to go to a couple of races, and I started out doing barn work. He told me to go slow, learn to control the horse. I started out at county fairs and he'd watch and tell me what I was doing wrong."
Even now, said Marcus, as he sat outside the Erv Miller stables on the fairgrounds, he consults his father.
"I can tell him what happened and what the horse did, and he can tell me what I was doing wrong and I can correct it," Marcus said.
Each horse is different, and each horse reacts differently in different situations, said Marcus, putting on his instructor hat.
"You get a little bit of time to see how they are going to react when you go on the track,'?Marcus said. "You can ask the trainer about their past performance, and you've got about eight minutes to get used to the horse and then another six minutes during the track parade."
Marcus said drivers need to think of themselves as coaching an athlete.
"An athlete," he added, "that weighs thousands of pounds and costs thousands of dollars."
The horses are going 30 to 35 mph on a track, and they are inches apart.
"You only have so much control, and you've just got seconds to make a decision," he said. "It's difficult to learn how they are going to react."
Marcus attends college at DePaul, and he is majoring in marketing. The college is close to Maywood, where he races at Balmoral. He splits his time working at the track, racing and going to school.
Through his dad he knew a lot of people around the track, he said, but that
didn't get him an "in" as a driver.
"It's pretty cliquey; you have to prove yourself, and the guys who are 50 and 55 years old and ready to retire, they aren't always real friendly," he said with a shrug. "But you can earn their respect if you are good at what you do."
The fact that the sulky he uses the most is pink means he gets his share of ribbing, but that doesn't bother him. He started using the pink sulky because it stood out, but now he will also race and donate some of the proceeds for breast cancer research.
"It raises awareness and it brings money for research," he said with another good-natured shrug. "I don't mind the ribbing."
A poised, articulate young man, he strides through the stable to get one of his favorite horses he drives, Power of a Moment. He frets as he gets him out of his stall.
"He doesn't like to eat all the time; we are working on finding just the right food for him," Marcus said.
Power of a Moment will only take so much fawning and pose only for so many photos before he starts a tap dance signaling his displeasure.
"He wants to go," Marcus said, but he keeps the horse under control and continues the interview.
Marcus comes back to race each year at the state fair but laments the fact that the crowds are getting smaller and smaller.
"Illinois legislation hasn't been the best for horse racing," he said. "Crowds here in the '80s were huge; now they've got the crowds in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We're hoping they get bigger again."
Horses such as Power of a Moment don't get broken for riding until after they retire from harness racing.
"They are good riding horses then," Marcus said. "They are used to a lot of different situations."
Even with the state of racing in Illinois in a bit of flux, Marcus said new drivers shouldn't be discouraged.
"Get the experience," is his advice. "Sit behind as many horses as you can. People can tell you what to do and when to do it, but you aren't going to get it until you do it yourself."
Story published Friday, September 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 5 )