Wearing his favourite track pants and sitting on an up-turned feed bucket at his Oakford property, Danny Miller is an unlikely poster boy for the Federal Government’s push to lift the age of retirement.
While Miller’s ginger curls are these days lapping more lightly at his forehead, the rising 68-year-old will tomorrow tackle WA’s best jockeys in a race he won twice in as many years more than four decades ago for legendary trainer Bart Cummings.
“Like a fine wine, I’m getting better with age,” the grandfather of five said with a cheeky smile as he prepared to ride outsider Klondike Lad in the WA Derby at Ascot. “I’m lucky to be able to mix with the past and still with the future.”
And it is hard to argue with that claim from Australia’s oldest jockey after he won country cups at Pinjarra, Mingenew and Dongara in just eight days a fortnight ago. Showing scant regard for any ravages of time, Miller will already have ridden in three races – including the inaugural Western Australia Cup over a gruelling 3200 metres – by the time he takes his mount in the WA Derby.
Known as “Dashing Dan” because of the regular front-running scampers which have become his riding trademark, he has embraced the moniker given to him by late WA training legend Albert Jordan.
“It’s been a great thing and everyone acknowledges me by that,” he said. “It’s just about knowing the horse you’re riding and what the horse is capable of doing, but sometimes they catch me and I don’t like those days. I like winning.”
Miller says he has no idea how many winners he has ridden since his maiden victory with Sparkling Gem at Ascot, 53 years ago in 1962. But the number is in the thousands and they have come at so many central and far-flung places across Australia – as well as England – that they could be moulded into a song to rival Lucky Starr’s 1962 hit, I’ve Been Everywhere.
The wins have come in Perth, Sydney, Wagga Wagga, Melbourne, Brisbane, Esperance, Bunbury, Pinjarra, Northam, York, Beverley, Albany, Broome, Port Hedland, Toodyay … and many more. His only hiatus from riding came when he was disqualified for a year and delivered crisps throughout Perth during a stint driving the Nobby’s Nuts van.
Miller openly embraces all three of WA’s racing codes as his extended family. But there is no doubt his immediate family has forged an unshakable effect on the industry
“Cousin Johnny (more widely known as J.J.) won the Melbourne Cup (riding Galilee in 1966), my uncles Jimmy and Dave were great jockeys, my father was an amateur rider, my brother Michael won a Perth Cup (trained Cardinal Colours in 2002) and my other brother Stephen won a Perth Cup (rode King Of Saxony in 1999) on Johnny’s horse,” he said.
“Then there are the Neeshams and Regans in football, water polo and swimming and my son Damian rode a lot of winners too and is a successful trainer now. We’re all proud of our family and we all stick together and we all love sport. Sport is our family and everyone in it is a contributor.”
The jockeys Miller rode against in his only Melbourne Cup in 1967 are either gone or long retired. But while the finishing post is his daily goal, it is nowhere in sight in terms of his career.
“Not at the moment, that burning ambition to win the Perth Cup is keeping me going,” the five-time placegetter in WA’s iconic race admitted.
“It’s something I’d dearly love to do and I’m not giving up until I get it. My other great love is the Dockers and for me to win my first Perth Cup and them to win their first flag would be a great thrill.”
Miller’s longevity is easier to understand when considering his late father Dan Sr drove his last pacing winner at 84 years of age and was still an amateur thoroughbred rider into his 70s. His 88-year-old mother Patricia is still alive and well and living in Bicton and his aunt Jo McManus, the grandmother of former Dockers star Shaun, recently celebrated her 100th birthday.
His love for horses was set from the time he and friend Wally Mitchell used to ride the cart horses at Miller’s Bakery, which was build in Palmyra by his grandparents in 1935. And like the building which still remains as a museum, Miller’s passion for horses and the racing industry they help drive is enduring – even after breaking most bones in his body.
A jockey room ovation from his peers a fortnight ago after winning the Pinjarra Cup with Kirov Boy, trained brilliantly by fellow WA industry veteran Arthur Mortimer, was the tonic that keeps him coming back for more and more. It was a race he has won six times and even met his wife Wendy there when she was a strapper for his victorious Free Copy in 1968.
“It keeps you going and it’s a lovely interest,” he said. “I’m at 6am at the track of a morning and I’m pretty fit. I just love doing what I’m doing and that’s the secret I think. I’m on a horse every day.”