Knowing J.J. Miller

My greatest rider became a friend 20 January 2020

I have met many famous people in my life, perhaps only shaken hands with them, but dined with others. I’ve stood at a bar and drunk one-on-one with legends. Some like John James Miller have become friends.

I was privileged to meet John James (J.J) Miller when I was 17 years old. A photograph of him winning the 1966 Melbourne Cup on Galilee had been in a frame on my bedroom wall since I was 12. My great uncle Leo Hooper was an Adelaide bookmaker and friends of the champion horse’s owners, Mr and Mrs Max Bailey.

How thrilled I was to receive in the post a colour photograph of Gallilee winning, inscribed “To Francis Wright from Mr and Mrs Max Bailey.”

When I met J.J it was through my friend Lee Burkett, who idolised the man. Lee and I would travel to the races with John and his wife Kay. At the time, John was wasting hard to ride and, when we’d leave 56 Burke Drive, Attadale to drive to the races, he was often very cranky.

One night during the halcyon years when Bart Cummings, T.J. Smith and Colin Hayes would bring horses to Perth for the Australian Derby and Perth Cup (for a brief time the Perth Cup had more prizemoney than the Melbourne Cup), Bart was dining at J.J’s. Having eaten a roast dinner served by Lee’s mum Phyl we weren’t hungry when Kay Miller asked us to join them at the table.

What 17-year-old racing tragic was going to pass that offer up. Lee and I sat and ate our second meal within half an hour. Kay was a good cook and John said: “If any one in Perth is eating better than me, I want to know about it.” Phyl’s meal was better but I wasn’t saying anything. 

In that period of time, J.J made the Australian Derby his own. He won it six times, sometimes on champions, sometimes on just good horses.

In 1983 he rode the even money favourite Bounty Hawk which won by more than three lengths. It probably didn’t need Miller’s miracle ride but it remains the single best ride I’ve ever seen because I have never seen it happen before or since.

Bounty Hawk was well back in the field at the 1200m mark at Ascot. Horses gain inside runs (think Pinker Pinker’s Cox Plate) and horses make three-wide runs often getting pushed wider but still winning. J.J didn’t do either, he went ‘through them.‘ 

Bounty Hawk improved in the one-out line from near last to straighten with only a leader to go around. It seemed every horse in the one-out line peeled out as Bounty Hawk came up behind it. These horses made their runs in a sort of staggered sequence and Miller didn’t go anywhere but forward. 

I would love to see a replay to prove I am right but I was there. I saw what I saw.

He once won a Boulder Cup at Kalgoorlie racecourse on Bahvell. It beat Sujama (Keith Watson) in a driving finish. That night I dined with Watson and he explained the race.

“It’s no disgrace to be beaten by the best jockey in the world. I’ve ridden in most places that are regarded as racing centres and I’ve never ridden against one better.

“Three times I had him reaching for the stick and each time he changed his mind and kept riding hands-and-heels. If he goes for the whip you know he’s beaten but he didn’t use it.”

In 1986 Kay had a trainer’s licence and J.J won the Perth Cup for her on Ullyatt. He had to waste hard to ride it.

He was a seasoned veteran but seemed to be getting lighter if it was worth it. What his diet was to ride the winner Rocket Racer at 48kg in the 1987 Perth Cup would stagger any eater. A far cry from the cranky J.J of the early 1970s struggling to ride 54kg.

My favourite memories of John were in the latter stages of his riding career. He developed a magnificent bit of showmanship combined with professionalism.

He nearly always put horses into the box seat and would pounce on the leaders into the home straight. About halfway down the straight and satisfied he had the horses on his inside beaten, J.J would raise his right elbow about 15cm, turn his neck to the right and look between arm and body to ensure no horse was finishing down the outside. 

When he did it and you had backed the horse, there was no greater feeling. It was like bottled adrenaline permitted to course through your body.

J.J took out a trainer’s licence and won another Perth Cup with King of Saxony in 1999. The gelding had not had a race for eight months and the cup was then at 3200 metres, equal of the longest distance on the flat of any major Australian race. Winning the race first up has never been done before or since and it was no easy cup. The horse he beat, Rogan Josh, went on to win a Melbourne Cup.

My father Jim Wright was a great friend of John’s. He told me that when J.J was invited to the WA Turf Club committee room that afternoon to celebrate King of Saxony’s win, the first person to see him enter was Bart Cummings. The man who trained 12 Melbourne Cup winners thrust his race book and a pen at his old friend.

“Can I have your autograph?” he said.

Quite a compliment. A genius reaching out to a legend.

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