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People’s Choice – Castledream, Grande Gil, Misdee Wrigley Miller

(Editor’s note: A complete list of all People’s Choice winners is posted in a separate news item.)



by Ann Bullard


“Aren’t I lucky! I’m living my dreams, doing all these crazy things with wonderful horses.”


‘Lucky’ only begins to describe Misdee Wrigley Miller, your People’s Choice Reserve Amateur of the Year. When you add hard work, dedication, imagination and determination, then you understand this horse lover’s success. Her commitment to the American Saddlebred and to the horse world as a whole keeps her among the leaders in the industry. Her service ranges from serving as vice president of the ASHA Board of Directors to the presidency of the World Coaching Club.


James and Misdee Miller at the Royal Winter Fair


That her two show ring stars, Three-Gaited World’s Grand Champion Grande Gil and the Amateur Fine Harness World’s Champion of Champions Castledream also received your votes puts an exclamation point on Miller’s outstanding 2007 season.


Miller took an unusual road into the Saddlebred world. As the daughter of the late Dee Dee Wrigley and granddaughter of Philip Wrigley, her equine heritage focused on the Arabian world. Her desire to ‘go for’ Arizona’s Junior Saddle Seat Equitation State Championship matched the then 10-year-old with a gelding leased from a family friend. Madison Avenue Boy did the trick – and Miller reached that early goal.


The advent of the National Show Horse Registry in the early 1980s opened new doors for those crossing American Saddlebreds with Arabians. The Wrigley family began purchasing Saddlebred mares. Dee Dee Wrigley’s KAABA, Inc. fielded some top National Show Horses. The most outstanding: the Five-Gaited Tanbark’s Power Of Love, the National Show Horse all-time money winner, with more than $136,000 in prize money during his career.


In 1997, Miller purchased the first of her ‘big-time’ Saddlebreds, the elegant Our Canary Diamond. Already a World’s Champion Junior and Open Fine Harness mare with trainer Larry Hodge, the team of Our Canary Diamond and Miller lit up show rings and victory pass photographs for four seasons. She now is the matriarch of Hillcroft Farm’s broodmare band.


Fast forward to 2006. Miller and Hodge selected the UPHA Three-Year-Old National Champion, Castledream, for her next fine harness contender. Hodge drove him to the Junior Fine Harness Gelding World’s Championship, a reserve in the Junior Stake and blue and tricolor at the 2006 American Royal.


Experts say blood will tell. No one could argue with that statement where Castledream is concerned. His sire, Castle Bravo, is by the incomparable, four-times World Grand Champion Five-Gaited star, CH Sky Watch, and out of Yorkshire Pudding, by New Yorker and out of Broodmare Hall of Fame mare, Putting On Airs. His dam, Kenneth and the late Sallie Wheeler’s world’s champion, A Daydream Believer, is the daughter of Attaché’s Born Believer and the Broodmare Hall of Fame, Sultan’s Spartan daughter, Dream A Dream.


Miller stepped into the harness buggy at Devon in 2007, winning both the amateur qualifier and grand championship. With one bobble, it was all blues from there.


“My first class at Lexington was such a disaster,” she conceded. “We had a little equipment issue but learned a lot. It was a very valuable experience. We came back a lot smarter. We had to regroup in a hurry to return and win the championship.


The team ended the season as the World’s Champion and Champion of Champions in the amateur fine harness division and with the amateur blue and grand championship tricolor from the American Royal.


Miller and Castledream enjoyed an outstanding

season, including the Amateur Fine Harness

World’s Champion of Championships.


Miller talked about her latest harness star, one she says has “been a long time coming. Special harness horses are as rare as hen’s teeth. Castledream is all show horse. When the groom puts on his work harness and hooks him to the bike, he’s kind of fun, but knows he is just going out for exercise. When he wears a show harness, he is a different horse. It’s like an electrical current is going through him. He gets so tense. His eyes get as big as saucers; his ears are constantly forward. He knows he is going to the show ring. Once you get in the harness buggy, you’d better be ready to go.”


Miller’s educated equine eye spotted Grande Gil not long after Joan Hamilton purchased the green two-year-old from Marion “Bit” Hutcheson of Happy Valley Farm. Trainer Eddie B. Womble, who worked with Happy Valley when they opened their doors in 1966 until his retirement in 2006, started the youngster. Hamilton and Larry Hodge entrusted his future to Kalarama trainer Neil Visser.


Miller watched as Visser quietly brought along the colt, introducing him to the show ring in the American Saddlebred Registry Three-Year-Old Three-Gaited Futurity in 2005. He never looked back. He started his junior season at Asheville, winning both the 15.2 and over qualifier and Asheville Lions Club Three-Gaited Grand Championship. The team followed reserve ties at Louisville’s Junior 15.2 and Over Stake and Junior World’s Champion of Championships with a pair of wins at the American Royal.


Miller had been teamed with several outstanding walk-trot horses. As she watched Grande Gil come along, as she observed his outstanding 2007 season, she knew he was a horse for her. She was there when Visser won the over 15.2 and championship at Asheville and watched their pair of Lexington wins.


“I’ve always loved him. I just didn’t think I could go there,” Miller said, referring to her obligations at Hillcroft Farm, with her carriage horses and other challenges. But the dream persisted; after Louisville Miller stepped up on the gelding at home.


“The first time I rode him, we just clicked,” Miller said. “It was a fabulous experience for me.”


James Miller, Hamilton, Hodge and Visser agreed. After long talks with her husband and Hamilton, Miller came back for a second ride.


“It was better than before,” she said. “James came out to watch me ride. He told me, ‘I’ve never seen you look better on any horse.’


“Sometimes when you just click with a horse, you know it’s right. I got that feeling the first time I ever stepped up on Grande,” she said.


In mid-November, Miller and Grande Gil came through the gate at the American Royal for the Three-Gaited Open 15.2 and Over qualifier. They were judged the best of three in their first contest together. On Saturday night, Miller rode the big gelding to the Open Three-Gaited Grand Championship, making him the first Saddlebred Triple Crown winner since 2004.


Grande Gil and Miller trotted off with the

Three-Gaited Grand Championship at the 2007

American Royal. Trainers Neil Visser and Larry

Hodge congratulated her on winning the final leg

of the Saddlebred Triple Crown.


Miller’s equine horizons extend far beyond the normal show ring. In 1998, she became one of the Saddlebred world’s first Friesian enthusiasts. That year, she was named the North American Pairs Driver and North American Tandem Drive Champion. In her typical fashion, Miller didn’t stop there; the following year, she began driving a four-in-hand team, first with Hackney horses and now with Dutch Harness Horses (warmbloods) that she and her husband selected in Germany last year. Her Hackney team is enjoying a well-deserved vacation.


“The Hackney is a very traditional coaching horse. They look great going down the road, but after an hour, you’re exhausted from holding them back,” Miller told an international coaching magazine. “Warmbloods are that perfect balance: beautiful horses with lots of sense. In coaching, you’re going to be in traffic and be around people and other horses. There’s a lot of standing around, and sometimes it’s hard for the horses to stand and wait.”


Splashing through streams and around obstacles

are among the challenges in combined driving.


Miller competes with her pair of warmbloods on the national and international level in combined driving, a sport she describes as “three-day eventing on wheels. The first day we do driven dressage. Just having my voice, a whip and reins is very, very challenging.”


Cross-country competition, with roads and tracks, hazards and multiple gates, highlights the second day. Splashing through a stream, up and down hills and through gates is simply part of the course. The third day features obstacles, 20 to 25 cones set 20 centimeters wider than carriage wheels.


“You have to get through those as quickly as you can without knocking them down,” Miller explained. “It’s a blast, requiring such understanding and great communication between you and your horses. It’s three very intense and physical days, a completely different challenge than spending 20 minutes on Grande Gil’s back.”


It’s also quite different than driving Castledream. “I think combined driving has helped me become a better harness driver. I have a greater understanding of what he’s doing between the shafts and how to balance him. It’s a long wait until time to show him again,” she said.


With the show horses let down for the winter, Miller divides much of her time between combined driving in Ocala and playing polo in Sarasota, Fla. For the next few years, she plans to concentrate on competition. That dream for coaching competition: to make the U.S. Pairs [Combined Driving] Team and represent the country at the 2009 World Championships in Hungry. It’s required realigning her priorities.


“Hillcroft is a much smaller farm today; we’ve sold a lot of horses,” she said, adding that Nancy McConnell is handling the management and training duties. “I have no mares in production right now. That was part of my plan when we decided to have a few really great horses. If I have to spend part of the year in Europe for the world’s [combined driving] championships next year, I have to pull back a bit.”


Although she is stepping down from the ASHA Board to concentrate on other commitments, Miller has high hopes for the breed. “A whole new level of conversation is taking place between membership and directors. I think whoever wins [the Director’s] elections, they are going to bring a great dynamic to the board. We are all concerned about listening to everyone, to being very open-minded about what we need to do as an Association to promote and expand the breed.”


That’s one reason Miller says she is “taking her American Saddlebred hat out to other places. I want to concentrate my effort so the American Saddlebred can be represented on the world stage,” she said. “We need to get new ideas but have to be open to new ways to show, to promote and market our horses. I’m very, very excited about the concept of Regional Championships. That helped bring the Arab industry back.”


While she steps back from the ASHA Board, Miller will continue to serve on the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation, the Kentucky Governor’s Advisory Committee for the World Equestrian Games and the Kentucky Equine Education Project.


In the midst of all the meetings, of coaching competition and playing polo, Miller simply revels on her life. “James and I are really enjoying being in Sarasota this winter. We’ve rented a barn with an apartment above it. Every night before we go to bed, we creep downstairs, feed the polo ponies carrots and spoil them.”


She’s a very lucky lady indeed.






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