Trainer Simon Miller celebrated a wonderful day at Ascot last Saturday when recording a winning treble, including Group 3 and Listed events, with each of his wins further illustrating his tag as one of the best in the business.
Widely regarded as the leading juvenile trainer in WA, Miller’s exceptional performance on Saturday further outlined that notion after winning with horses aged two and three, as well as a dual stakes-winning four-year-old who won the opening two-year-old race of the 2016/17 season.
Miller, a Geelong born-and-bred son of two bank workers, developed an interest in racing after having other family involved in bookmaking, syndication and breeding aspects of the industry.
He followed his parents’ path into banking after completing his high school studies, however, the lure to racing proved too difficult to resist.
“I loved the punt,” Miller said.
“My uncle, being a bookie, taught me how to punt and then I ended up making the transition into the training ranks.
“My folks knew I was going to leave the bank.
“They actually thought I would’ve done it earlier.”
After working for trainer Charlie Goggen on weekends, Miller left the bank to work at Robbie Griffiths’ Cranbourne stable full-time.
He spent close to eight years working under Griffiths and, after being promoted to stable foreman after just six months, went on to become assistant trainer.
Miller then took up an opportunity to work for astute horseman John O’Shea in Sydney, where he based himself for two years, and the desire to train in his own right began to burn.
Miller and his WA-born partner, veterinarian Ellie Crispe, had future plans of moving to her home state in the west so, after receiving an unexpected offer from a racing administration company to start up a stable in Perth, he jumped at the chance
“When I went to Sydney, Aquanita knew I was potentially heading to WA and they reached out,” Miller said.
“I knew a few of the board members before I’d gone to Sydney and they knew that after I finished at John’s, I was going to Perth.
“They said, ‘why don’t you come up under our umbrella?’ and it suited me.”
Miller worked as an assistant trainer to Aquanita’s Robert Smerdon whilst setting up his Perth stable before making the big move across the country.
“It was hard,” he said.
“I came over with five horses; a couple of yearlings and some tried horses and we went from there.
“We didn’t have many starters in the first 12 months because we obviously didn’t have many horses.
“We were given a few but, if they couldn’t win, we didn’t race them.”
Asked if his apparent juvenile-focused business plan was intentional from the outset, Miller said it was a style he had become accustomed to on the east coast.
“All three trainers I’d worked for had an abundance of yearlings each year come through,” he said.
“I always knew how to get a handle on the two-and-three-year-olds pretty easily because, when I was working for them, we had runners in Blue Diamonds, Golden Slippers and then the Guineas, Oaks and Derby the follow year.
“I love stayers, but I don’t get the opportunity to train stayers because I buy probably 90 per cent of my stable.
“I buy sprinters because they’re easy to find at the sales and, if you look at sprinters in the mounting yard, they’re easy to identify.
“If you look at stayers in the mounting yard, they’re all different shapes and sizes.”
The pressure of selecting the vast majority of his stable for clients, however, is a challenge Miller relishes.
“I love sales,” he said.
“It’s like AFL recruiting; if you don’t get it right, the flow-on effect two or three years down the track is enormous.
“If you keep buying fast horses, owners will keep reloading the gun.”
Miller has officially trained racehorses for a decade now and, amazingly, has an overall winning strike rate of 20 per cent.
His limit of 28 horses in work at any given time is arguably the smallest stable of the leading trainers in the state, however, it’s a deliberate strategy he has no plans of changing.
“I’ve always wanted to work smarter, not harder,” Miller said.
“When the carnival is on I don’t mind loading the bases up but, other than that, there is no point having a few runners against each other.
“The other thing is, if you get your numbers up big, 90 per cent of the time you’re just filling the extra barn with slow horses.
“Because the numbers are there, we’re constantly putting pressure on ourselves to get rid of the lesser ones so we can keep the number of good ones flowing through, otherwise I get a massive backlog.”
Miller has enjoyed sustained success since his arrival in WA, however, he was forced to withstand a tumultuous period during the infamous Aquanita scandal that rocked the racing industry nation-wide at the end of 2017.
Robert Smerdon, then the head trainer of Aquanita’s prominent Caulfield stable, was sensationally charged with illegal race-day doping of horses over a seven-year period.
The fallout resulted in several other Aquanita associates being charged with involvement in the systematic race-day treatments and, as a result, Miller had to deal with rumour and innuendo regarding his WA stable.
“It was an absolute killer,” Miller said.
“I was trying to train for the carnival and the media were hammering everyday wanting to know the ins-and-outs.
“They knew who the other interstate trainer was but, instead of naming Liam Birchley, they just said that there was an interstate trainer involved.
“There were a few days there where I just turned my phone off.”
Asked if the saga was the main reason for his decision to officially break ties with Aquanita as of January 1, 2018, Miller says the wheels had already been in motion prior to the discovery of the investigation.
“Ironically, I had given six months’ notice on 30th June so we could do the last carnival together,” he said.
“Then Robert got caught doing what he was doing over the spring carnival.
“I had a meeting booked in with the Aquanita board members in Melbourne on the Friday before Derby day to talk about the dispersal of who was getting what, and I turned up to the meeting and they said, ‘this is no longer about the dispersal’.
“They gave me the dialogue of what had been pulled off Robert’s phone and I started having a look and thought, ‘my God, he’s in a world of trouble’.
“They said, ‘you’re the only one who is clean out of this whole saga, do you want to train solely for us and come back to Melbourne?’”
Already in shock and trying to process the information that had just blindsided him, Miller also had a life-changing decision to make.
However, it was a choice he didn’t have to think too hard about.
“I went home and spoke to Ellie,” he said.
“It actually wasn’t a hard decision because it would’ve meant I’d have to give up everything I’d set up here.
“I have great staff, great clients and good horses.
“I could’ve ran both but no do doubt that’d wear me down and, the other thing, was I was already leaving them because I wanted to go on my own.
“It didn’t make sense to jump back in the fire.”
Fast forward to February 5, 2019, after Miller had been training on his own for more than 12 months, and he and Crispe welcomed their first child, Olivia, into the world.
“I’m loving it,” he said.
“Even little things like, on Saturday, we had a treble and won two feature races and I had a dinner on afterwards, but I came home first because she wouldn’t settle and then I settled her and went to dinner after that.
“It’s pretty cool and I’m enjoying it.”
One leg of Saturday’s winning treble, four-year-old Achernar Star, scored back-to-back stakes victories when taking out the Listed Grandstand Cup (1500m) after winning the Listed Bunbury Stakes (1400m) at his start prior.
The Gingerbread Man gelding won the opening two-year-old race of the 2016/17 season on October 1, 2016, placed at Group-1 level a year later and now has earnings in excess of $850,000 including Westspeed bonuses.
“He’s a ripper,” Miller said.
“Even though we’re a juvenile stable, there’s a lot that aren’t ready to push, so we don’t.
“We have strict criteria and all of our good two-year-olds have always came back and raced as good three-year-olds.
“They have to tick every box to go to the races at two and, if there’s one element they don’t pass, they go back out.
“The main thing to find out is whether they’ve got ability and, if they do, that’s fine because you just hold their hand until they’re ready.”
On the other hand, Saturday’s Group 3 Gimcrack Stakes (1100m) winner, Rio Del Mar, was an astute $20,000 weanling purchase by Miller two years ago.
Amelia’s On Fire, who finished a commendable fourth in the Gimcrack after winning stylishly at her race debut five weeks earlier, was also purchased by Miller at the same sale.
The fillies join a list of successful weanlings acquired by Miller in recent years, with 2014 Gimcrack Stakes winner, Fuld’s Bet, and multiple Group-winning and $1.18 million-earning mare, Whispering Brook, other notable mentions.
“I’ve been very lucky in that I got taught by two geniuses, Merrick Staunton and Robert Smerdon, about how to identify yearlings and weanlings.
“Pedigrees don’t worry me, it’s 100 per cent about confirmation.
“Sometimes when I’m looking at yearlings at the sales, I don’t even realise it’s a half to one of my horses.
“Then, all you do when you like something, is look at the catalogue page and, if it’s by Fastnet Rock, you’re going to need $400,000.
“But if it’s by Alfred Nobel, you know a fist full of fifties will get it.”
Rio Del Mar, Amelia’s On Fire and stablemate Niccovi currently occupy three of the first four lines of betting in futures markets for the $500,000 Group 2 Karrakatta Plate (1200m) at Ascot on April 6.
Miller has filled a placing in the state’s major two-year-old event each year he has contested the historic race, including three victories with Night War (2011,) Whispering Brook (2016) and Valour Road (2018).
Despite his obvious achievements and excitement as he heads into the most important time of the year for his stable, Miller is quick to deflect praise to his team behind the scenes.
“Rebecca Nairn has done all my pre-training since Night War and Power Princess were around and George Dupre has been going my breakers since I got here,” he said.
“You need everyone swimming in the same direction.
“From breaking-in to pre-training to spelling to farriers, you’ve got to have them all on the same page.
“It’s not just me, everyone plays their part.”
Asked what he would like to achieve over the next 12 months, Miller has plans of interstate success.
“We’re getting an unbelievable band of horses now so I’m going to have to start travelling them more,” he said.
“I’ll whip a few over to Adelaide this year and then the spring carnival we also might, too.
“I’ve got to start targeting a few over east a bit more, which is a good thing!”