Bode Miller’s name may be synonymous with ski racing as a six-time Olympic medal winner for Team USA, but he continues to immerse himself in horse racing with a fledgling stable that may be ready to step onto the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands in coming weeks.
While Miller’s skiing career is currently on hold as he mulls taking another crack at the Winter Olympics at age 40 in 2018, he has an exciting prospect on the racetrack, the blazing colt En Hanse who will carry three wins in his last four starts into Saturday’s John Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway Park. Another strong performance would put the colt in position to test the waters in an official Kentucky Derby prep race. Miller owns En Hanse in partnership with Dr. Kendall Hansen, who raced his sire, Hansen, the 2011 champion 2-year-old male and ninth-place finisher in the 2012 Kentucky Derby.
En Hanse sped to a 3 1/2-length win in the 6 1/2-furlong WEBN Stakes at Turfway on Feb. 11, bouncing right back from a disappointing loss as the favorite in a similar race, the six-furlong Space City Stakes at Sam Houston Race Park on Jan. 29.
Trained by Mike Maker, En Hanse had lost his first three starts but turned things around on Nov. 6 when he was let loose in a sprint at Churchill Downs, setting the pace and then holding on to win by a neck. He followed with an emphatic triumph by 7 1/2 lengths in an allowance at Turfway on Dec. 21. In the Space City a month later, he got away slowly and never recovered, lagging behind and finishing seventh.
Miller is very detailed and involved as an owner, much like Hansen, and when they talked strategy before the WEBN, Miller said he felt strongly that En Hanse should be allowed to use his speed.
“I thought that the jock shouldn’t try to save anything, he should hit the front and get there fast and if anyone tries to go with you, make sure you break their spirit early in the race and push them real hard,” Miller recalled. “Then, it’s going to be a matter of hanging on. I really think that made a difference for him. In his previous start, he missed the break and got some dirt in his face and, in my opinion, that was what set him back. I didn’t want to see that happen again. Everyone was on the same page, so it was really cool. It seems that’s a rare thing in this sport, where everyone was on the same page, and then things went to plan.
“It’s been a lot of fun and I definitely think he has a lot of potential as he continues to mature. There were a few hiccups but he has come right through them, which has been great. He has shown really good speed, which I like, and Dr. Hansen and Mike Maker have been great to work with. We talk about everything, we talk about tactics, we talk about where we want the horse to be, and Maker is a great guy that way, he is receptive to ideas.”
Miller got to know Hansen, a colorful character who had the tail of his nearly white namesake Hansen painted blue before the 2012 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and was accompanied by three women in matching white dresses with blue tails, during the stretch leading up to that year’s Kentucky Derby. They share a common interest in knowing as much as they can about potential horse purchases, including cardiovascular analysis, and made a pledge to join together as partners if they found a horse that suited them both. That turned out to be En Hanse.
Hansen bred the colt from the first and only North American crop of his namesake colt, who was exported after one season to South Korea.
“He seemed like a really enthusiastic guy and was involved in the sport on a couple different levels, and we got along well. I talked to him about buying a couple of his Hansen foals because I really liked how that horse moved and I liked the attitude,” Miller said. “We had some near misses and then En Hanse came along and it was an obvious horse for me to get involved in. I had seen him and really had a lot of positive things to say about him, and my only concern was his throat, it just looked a little bit weaker on one side, but I loved him. That was the bottom line.”
Miller is eager to see whether En Hanse’s speed can be effective with added distance stretching out to 1 1/16 miles in the John Battaglia Memorial as a key factor for whether he is truly a candidate for a Derby prep like the Jacks Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes back at Turfway on March 25.
“We are stepping up and asking him to move forward,” he said. “Stretching him out is going to be the challenge. Like I said, my only concern with him was his throat. This is where we will find out, a horse with his speed, it is putting a lot of negative pressure on their lungs and staying is a challenge. This last race, what really surprised me is that he didn’t slow down that much, and he looked good doing it. The goal here is to prep him to stretch out into these prep races and see what we can get out of him. I love his attitude, and a horse that is hot is just hot, period."
Miller owns his own barn at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland that he extensively renovated prior to the 2016 season to utilize some of the sport science lessons that he learned as a world-class competitive skier. He described his program as still in a very early stage, but his prospects for success are obviously rising as he not only has En Hanse but also a 3-year-old colt named No More Talk who broke his maiden on Jan. 29 for trainer Francis “Tres” Abbott III and then finished third in the Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel Park on Feb. 18. He also could move onto a Derby prep later this spring.
“You can’t rush this sport, and if you try, you learn pretty quick that it’s not possible,” said Miller, who lives in Southern California with his wife, professional volleyball player Morgan Beck Miller. “We are at a stage right now that I am really happy with. We have had our little setbacks, but overall I am really happy.
“With a lot of the things that I think are important, implementation has been a challenge. It’s not that hard to think about them, but to even start the ball rolling has been a challenge. Tres is great, he has an open mind to new things, and he has the background in horsemanship. The fundamentals don’t change, but the sport has stayed the same or even regressed over the last 30 or 40 years. I don’t think that’s uncommon. My sport was the same way. Speed racing is very stagnant. I respect the horsemanship side of it. I have a lot of good friends who are spectacular horseman but don’t have even a high school understanding of sport science or physiology in the terms that I would consider applicable to working with a biological animal like a horse. For instance, Bob Baffert has such an amazing feel and he almost doesn’t know why he makes the decisions he does. His instinct, with his eye and being around racing as long as he has, leads him in the right direction more often than that. It’s closer to magic than anything else. At the end of the day, that is the foundation of any program. You simply can’t exist at a high level without that part. But there are some parts that are almost counterintuitive to horsemanship and figuring out ways to integrate them without ruffling feathers too much or throwing off the program, that is kind of the crux of the deal and it is a challenge. It is a worthy challenge.
“Everyone I have met in racing, they don’t like seeing horses get hurt or losing races. So at the end of the day, my goal is as simple as anyone else’s, I want to keep healthy, happy horses racing longer and more successfully. It’s a tough thing to do, but even if I end up making a small contribution throughout my career, I hope that it is something that lasts and people can build on in the future. In 100 years, if the sport is still around, it is not going to look like it does now, and I want to be a part of that, I want to help it move in a positive direction.”