Springfield, IL --- Because of the State of Illinois' huge budget woes it was touch and go for months if the show would go on, nonetheless harness racing at the Illinois State Fair -- with pari-mutuel wagering -- will get underway Friday afternoon (August 13) and no one is happier than the meet’s defending driving champion, Marcus Miller.
“I’m excited to be back home and to compete at Springfield,” said the 21-year-old Miller. “I’ve been coming to the State Fair since I was a little boy and I want to be coming here for years to come. I’m just hoping this won’t be the last State Fair here that I get a chance to drive in.”
With the state’s record $13 billion deficit, cuts had to be made, including purses, however now that last year’s purses have been paid in full and the Balmoral/Maywood Park group has agreed to again run the harness meet, Marcus will get his opportunity to defend his title.
“Springfield is my home track where I learned to drive and winning the title last year was very special for me. My uncle Andy (Miller) won the title for something like eight or nine straight years and last summer it came down to the last race on the last day of racing between myself and Brandon Simpson. I drove the winner and that broke the tie. It was an awesome feeling.”
Marcus had lived in a house in near-by Sherman, just a short drive from the State Fairgrounds, until he made the recent move to the Chicago area to compete on its circuit. His father Erv Miller has moved the majority of his powerful stable to New Jersey to take advantage of lucrative money available on the east coast.
“We still have the house in Sherman but it is for sale. It went on the market this summer,” continued Marcus, who was born in Olney, about 145 miles southeast of Springfield. “I still went home to visit buddies this summer but the house was empty when I got there. I really like Springfield and Sherman and have a lot of friends there but it’s kind of bittersweet when I come down here now.
“My mom and dad live in (Manalapan) New Jersey now, which is about an hour's drive from the Meadowlands. They’re not far from my aunt (Julie) and uncle (Andy).”
Marcus became a full-time Chicago circuit driver for the start of the 2009 season and had a banner year, driving 1,794 horses who won 242 races and earned over $1.7 million. This season he has 213 dash victories and $896,883 in money won with a very heavy workload on and off the racetrack.
Marcus had been attending DePaul University in the daytime this year and driving at Balmoral or Maywood Park five evenings a week. However, the full-time double-duty has taken a toll on the young man.
“I didn’t enroll at DePaul for the fall,” said Marcus. “I won’t be taking any classes this upcoming semester. I’m keeping my options open on furthering my education but at this time I won’t be full-time at school in the day and full-time driving at night on the Chicago circuit. It just got to be too much. I felt like I couldn’t do my best on both ends, so I’m taking a break from school for now.”
The Illinois State Fair Colt Stake eliminations for 2-year-olds of both sexes and gaits will be contested on eight of the 10 races on Springfield’s opening Friday card. The ICF 3-year-old stake elims or prep events are sprinkled throughout the Saturday program. Review Stakes for open company horses are on tap on the upcoming Monday and Tuesday matinees with the Illinois bred stakes finals slated on either Wednesday, Aug. 18, or the closing Thursday, Aug. 19, cards. First post daily is at 12 noon (CDT).
-- Mike Paradise writes a daily column for the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association at www.harnessillinois.com.