It has Sometimes Been a Hard Road for Randy Miller — But not in the Spa & Surf Showdown

Most of the time Randy Miller, 67, is kept busy by his still-flourishing, one-man law practice in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, which is not far from Lancaster. Some of the time, he is busy with one of his favorite avocations—singing gospel music. And a little bit of the time, Miller indulges his longtime love of playing the races.

“Hey, Randy,” one of his horseplaying buddies quipped to him not long ago, “you need to get your priorities straight!”

Miller’s priorities were plenty straight and his judgments plenty keen last weekend when he won $235,764 in the two-day, $659,005 Spa & Surf Showdown. 

“My wife Joanne and I did a lot of smiling when it was all over, and then I called our three daughters individually to let them know what happened,” Miller recalled. “A couple of times, Joanne and I just looked at each other as if to say, ‘Can you believe this?’ Things got pretty tense at certain times of the tournament—especially near the end—but we just decided that we weren’t going to let this be anything but fun.”

Randy Miller

Almost from the very beginning of his life, Miller has learned to cherish the fun times.

In November 1954, when Randy was just 10 months old, the Polio virus swept its way through the Miller household in Western Pennsylvania. One sister suffered headaches. Another sister got a sore throat. A brother experienced temporary leg pain. They were the lucky ones. Randy wasn’t as fortunate. With the Polio vaccine still six months away from being introduced, the toddler developed a full-blown case of the awful disease, and spent much of the next four years in a children’s hospital in Pittsburgh.

“Initially, I was paralyzed from the neck down. Eventually I was able to regain movement—first in my right hand, then in my right arm, then in other parts of my body—but I wasn’t able to walk again, even with crutches, until I was five years old.”

As Randy’s condition improved, he went on to lead a largely normal child’s life. His first experience with horses came at age 12 when one of his older sisters took him to Rosecroft Raceway to see some harness racing. He wasn’t attracted to the gambling aspect at that point, but he really enjoyed just watching the horses move with such speed and agility. 

It wasn’t until eight years later, while home from college, that Randy fell in love with Thoroughbred racing when Secretariat won the Triple Crown. 

“I had still never made a bet by that time, but even with my very limited knowledge, I knew as I watched the race on TV that Secretariat was going too fast to be able to stay the distance. For him to then do what he did really locked me into watching the races. I have a framed print of Secretariat—that my wife bought me for an anniversary gift—hanging in my home to this day.”

From that June day in 1973, Miller grew interested in handicapping races and making modest bets at tracks and OTBs, and eventually he discovered that contests were fun too. Up until eight or so years ago, Miller used to be a fairly frequent presence at The Orleans for tournaments like the Horse Player World Series and the Fall Classic. In 1994, he cashed for $40,000 after a runner-up finish in the World Series of Handicapping at Penn National. But recurring health problems in recent years have forced him into a specially-equipped power chair to do most of his getting around, and that limits his ability to travel long distances. Miller still played the races parimutuelly from home when time permitted, of course, but his contest play was severely curtailed. Prior to the Spa & Surf Showdown, the only contest he had played in 2021 was January’s Flo-Cal Faceoff. As the Spa & Surf Showdown approached, though, he got the itch to give one of the high-profile HorseTourneys events another shot.

“I’m not a big player,” Miller said. “I like to tell people, ‘Sometimes I win a little, sometimes I win a lot, sometimes I lose a little, but I never lose a lot.’ The Spa & Surf Showdown was a high entry fee [$2,500], but I told a friend that when we used to play out at The Orleans, we probably spent that much between the entry fee and the flight and the hotel. Then I read about the Tourney Triple series, and even though I knew it was the last leg and that I wasn’t going to win any series bonus or anything like that, I always thought that, competing against serious players, I could still do well…so I decided to give myself a mini-vacation and buy an entry.”

It’s always nice when a vacation pays for itself…and then some.

Here’s a look at Miller’s picks over the two days. In many ways, it’s an incredibly enviable scorecard.

Perhaps the single biggest factor in Miller’s victory is that he had the weekend’s three highest paying winners: Flint Ridge ($25.40) in Saturday’s race 2 at Saratoga, Got Stormy ($27.00) in Saturday’s 10th at the Spa and Gimmick ($26.60) in Sunday’s 5th at Saratoga. Miller was no one-track pony, however. His Del Mar winners included Seattle Breakout ($17.60) in Saturday’s 7th and—perhaps most notably—Puipit Rider ($16.60) in Sunday’s 7th. It was a victory that, with just two races remaining, enabled him to take the lead for the first time.

Even a cursory glance at Miller’s scorecard will show that he went on no prolonged droughts between collections, and that is borne out in the tourney’s end-of-day stats. Though he earned no day-money bonuses, Miller had the 6th-best score ($146.60) out of 259 on Saturday and the 8th-highest tally ($113.70) on Sunday. 

He also eschewed chalk for almost the entire competition. 

“I’ve always felt that with favorites, the best that can happen is you’re right…and it’s very little reward,” Miller said.

Throughout the two days, odds of 7-2 seemed to be an unofficial, or maybe even subconscious, line of demarcation for Miller. The one time he crossed that line—with 3-2 winner Causeididitmyway in Sunday’s 8th at Del Mar—it was something of a happy accident.

“I made the play and noticed that the horse was 7-2 or 3-1 entering the gate,” he recalled. “ I was happy when he won, but then I was surprised to see the win payoff was just $5.00, He went from 3-1 to 3-2 during the race. If I knew the odds were going to be 3-2, I probably would have changed my pick. As things turned out, I got $8.00 back from that play…and I wound up winning by $6.20.”

When Miller took the lead one race earlier with Pulpit Rider—a horse he didn’t necessarily love but one he thought represented good value at the 7-1 odds—he came to a somewhat disquieting realization.

“Now all those guys are shooting at ME,” he said to himself.

Rather than do all of his handicapping and decision making well in advance, Miller prefers to play contests by handicapping only one or maybe two races ahead of time. 

“It’s a bit simpler when you’re behind because, for the most part, you’re just worrying about yourself and the person in first place,” he said. 

Heading into the last race—and nursing a $6.20 lead—Miller could have opted for 3-2 favorite Vantastic (#1) so as to block his nearest rival, Alan Lahr, from passing him with that horse. But Miller saw things differently and went with a 9-1 shot Sea of Liberty that finished up the track.

“If I had a bigger lead, I might have paid more attention to odds. But things were so tight that I really didn’t study the leaderboard that much. I started looking at that last race, and I really didn’t have a good feeling about anyone in the race. I felt I was already somewhat protected if the #1 horse won, and I wanted to protect myself against more than just the person right behind me. I figured that in situations like these, the people behind you are also looking at the people behind THEM.

When Vantastic won, Miller was momentarily pleased because he was hoping that he would win if Sea of Liberty didn’t. However, even at this point in the tournament, Miller was unaware that the HorseTourneys website revealed everyone’s picks as soon as the race went off. So it wasn’t until several minutes later that Miller hit “refresh” and saw that no one higher than 9th-place had used Vantastic. Only then did the celebrations and outgoing phone calls begin.

When the laughter was over, the Spa & Surf Showdown gave Miller yet another reason to give thanks for what he had in his life.

“I’m a fellow who has been blessed by the family I was born into, then my wife, and then my kids,” he said. “My siblings and wife and children were just so excited for me when they found out I had won—and that meant everything to me.”