Ear ailment sends Miller into retirement at age 33


September 22, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Donnie Miller Jr. remembers well that muddy May day when he guided Deputed Testamony through a hole on the rail to a stunning victory in the 1983 Preakness.

Miller recalled that after crossing the finish line he didn't think: "Thank God I won the Preakness."

No, this Maryland native -- at the time three weeks shy of his 20th birthday -- said he remembers thinking: "Thank God I didn't screw it up."

That gilded memory is one of many Miller carries into retirement. After 16 years riding horses for a living -- he won 2,856 races and his mounts earned $37,472,579 -- Miller, 33, has quit for health reasons.

Miller was born with an inner-ear weakness discovered just this summer by Dr. Dennis Fitzgerald of Washington. Often overlooked by doctors, Fitzgerald said, the weakness renders Miller susceptible to hearing loss caused by head injuries.

At the age of 7, Miller lost the hearing in his right ear. At 16, after being thrown from a horse, he lost half the hearing in his left ear. Then this summer -- June 25 at Philadelphia Park -- he went temporarily deaf after his horse stumbled out of the starting gate, flipped Miller to the ground and clipped his helmet with a hoof.

"That scared the daylights out of me," Miller said. "I couldn't hear myself talk at all."

He regained some hearing after a few days, and then a bit more after surgery by Fitzgerald repaired leakage of inner-ear fluid. But Fitzgerald told Miller that any further head trauma could result in permanent deafness.

Miller's decision was agonizing.

"I genuinely enjoy being around horses," he said. "I love being on their backs, love the excitement of the industry. You're always going, going, going. But I don't think I'd ever forgive myself if I went back to riding and lost my hearing for good."

Miller was Maryland's dominant jockey during most of the 1980s, riding Ron Alfano's horses as well as Little Bold John (Miller was aboard for 21 stakes wins), Wind Splitter in the 1989 Kentucky Derby (finished 11th; Sunday Silence won) and Deputed Testamony in the 1983 Preakness.

J. William Boniface, trainer of Deputed Testamony, said Miller was a master at diagnosing a race -- judging pace, finding position, plotting strategy.

"He always rode a heady race," Boniface said. "And he always conducted his business in a first-class manner."

In his gallant Preakness, Miller rode patiently on the rail until a hole opened, and then he scooted Deputed Testamony through for a winning payoff of $31.

After riding nearly three years here, Miller knew that after a downpour the rail at Pimlico dried first. The big-name, out-of-town jockeys didn't know that, Miller said, so they rode wide, leaving a "wonderful little path" for the teen-age sensation.

Before Kent Desormeaux dethroned him in the late 1980s as the state's top rider, Miller led the nation's apprentice jockeys in 1981 with 296 wins and recorded seven riding titles at Laurel and four at Pimlico. He left Maryland in 1991 for California, Arkansas and Kentucky, came home for the 1994 and '95 seasons, and then rode primarily at Delaware Park this summer.

Raised in a racetrack family, Miller said he's not sure what he will do now -- maybe find a job in racing, maybe work with deaf students.

"It's been a wonderful career," said Miller, who never suffered a major injury other than his hearing losses. "About the worst thing that happened was I missed maybe two days with a twisted neck. I've never really been hurt, never broke a bone. That must be some kind of record."

Writers to honor Hines

Carolyn and Sonny Hine plan to be present Friday to accept an award from the Maryland Racing Writers' Association at its annual crab feast in the Pimlico clubhouse.

The Hines will be recognized for their work with Skip Away, the probable 3-year-old champion after his overpowering win in last weekend's Woodbine Million.

Carolyn, who grew up in Highlandtown, owns Skip Away, and Sonny, who developed horses for nearly three decades in Maryland, trains him.

Their durable Skip Trial colt has built an impressive 1996 resume: third in the Florida Derby and Travers; second in the Preakness and Belmont; first in the Blue Grass Stakes, Ohio Derby, Haskell Invitational and Woodbine Million.

Next is the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 5 at Belmont Park -- against none other than Maryland-bred Cigar.

"I don't look forward to it," Sonny Hine said. "But I guess it's the next mountain to climb."

The Maryland Racing Writers' Association also will present an award to Country Life Farm in Bel Air for foaling Cigar in 1990 and for standing Allen's Prospect, the state's leading sire.

Snowden Carter will receive the Humphrey S. Finney Award for lifetime contribution to racing. Carter, 75, covered horse racing for The Sun, edited The Maryland Horse magazine and served as longtime general manager of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

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