Joe Miller is a big, strapping man. He measures 6 feet tall and weighs approximately 265 pounds. People who don’t know him look at him and think he is perfect for his job?–that of horse ambulance driver.
But they don’t know Miller’s personality. Nor do they have any idea what it means to drive a horse ambulance for the Maryland Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred racetracks Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park–and the mental anguish it has come to cause him.
Miller’s sister, Polly Adams, initially thought driving the horse ambulance would be a good job for him. He cares about animals. She’d already seen him drive to Ohio to adopt an American Pit Bull who had been rescued from a fight club. She knew he loved horses, too, knew he’d do his best to take care of them.
But she thinks differently about the job now.
“I had no idea how injured some of the horses would be when he sees them,” says the retired Towson University librarian. “It’s an important job and someone has to do it, but I wish it wasn’t him.
“I told him this summer, ‘It’s a shame. People see you as a great big, strong guy, and have no idea how soft you are inside. It’s typecasting. They have no idea you’re a marshmallow.’”
Adams can’t keep the smile from her voice.
“He didn’t appreciate me using the word marshmallow,” she says.
A job of necessity
It’s a beautiful, chilly morning in early December at Laurel Park as Miller offers a seat in one of two Adirondack chairs his father handmade 40 years ago. Miller has been here since 4 enjoying the sunrise, opening the track gates for employees.
The chairs are positioned outside the little white building where Miller does his paperwork each day. He records what he does at the racetrack and what happens to the horses–the who, what, where, when, what leg or other body part that is injured, whether it is on dirt or turf, all the information necessary to try to determine if there is any pattern to the injuries.
The little house stands near the fence along the dirt track, near the exit of the second turn. Outside that building is where Miller spends his mornings, waiting and hoping nothing bad will happen to a horse during the morning exercise sessions.
He passes his time pleasantly, taking photographs and talking to trainers and exercise riders, giving their horses peppermints.
“Joe gives my pony mints every morning,” says trainer Katy Voss. “My pony isn’t happy if he doesn’t go to see Joe, so I take him there twice every morning, once before the work and once after. My pony gets ornery if I don’t.
“Joe has a tough job. Obviously, a lot of people couldn’t do it. His job is vital. Joe is a horseman who has worked with horses all his life and he likes them, which makes what he does so hard.”
As several exercise riders ride by, Oscar Mancilla leans down from his horse.
“I love you,” he says to Miller. “I love you.”
Miller smiles. He says his racetrack friends, who have become more like family over the years, mess with him, tease him and lift his spirits when he gets depressed, something that began happening more often last spring.
His face is full and soft, an impressive mustache decorates his upper lip and his hazel eyes, which often fill with tears as he talks about the injured horses, are both sorrowful and kind.
A gentle man in a brutal job for more than 18 years.
The job of horse ambulance driver is a racetrack necessity. Someone has to be on the scene to help the injured racehorses.
Finding someone for the job is the hard part. As Maryland Jockey Club racing secretary Georganne Hale puts it, “No one is standing in line.” No one wants the job. And anyone who does simply doesn’t know what he or she is in for.
Miller was like that. He took the job unknowing–“I just figured horses would be hurt, and I’d just take them off the racetrack. Basically, I would have been better off if I didn’t know anything about horses,” he says. “I’m probably the only trainer with this job.”
While Laurel Park and Pimlico are known to have two of the safest racing surfaces in the industry, breakdowns still occur. Hale says the MJC safety figures continue to improve. In 2013 there were 1.9 breakdowns per 1,000 starters. In 2015 there were 1.4. The national average is 1.89.
But those numbers don’t begin to reveal the impact of individual cases, on horses and humans.
Miller has seen a horse who lost his rider run headfirst into a concrete wall; another miss a narrow opening and tear a gash more than a foot long through its intestines; another literally skewer itself on a track railing.
After Miller discovered some of the horses he’d see wouldn’t be walking–or anything else–he stayed on because he thought he could help the suffering animals, their trainers and owners.
“He’s like an emergency care worker,” trainer Mike Trombetta said before Miller was given the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association’s special Unsung Hero award in December 2015. “Some of these horses are left in bad positions and it’s critical to get them to where they can get treatment. His is a difficult job, but someone has to do it and it boils down to the best way to handle it is with care and compassion. Joe tries to act in everyone’s best interest.”
But, as is often said, no good deed goes unpunished. And Miller, who turned 53 Jan. 30, broke down himself last summer. Until then, he filled the job both in the mornings and in the afternoons on race days for nearly two decades.
On July 17, police officers came to the door of the little white building at Laurel Park and took him out in handcuffs. He thought they were there because that morning he had been shooting geese, which had become overabundant at the track.
But that wasn’t it. Joe Poag, chief investigator for the Maryland Racing Commission, was worried about Miller and called the police to take him to the Laurel Regional Behavioral Unit at Laurel Regional Hospital.
“I’ve known Joe for a long time,” Poag says. “He’s a really good guy. I just felt something wasn’t right.”
From cabbage patch to racetrack
Growing up in Fork, Md., Miller couldn’t help knowing about Buck Burton’s produce farm. Miller and his friend Billy Delp, son of trainer Richard Delp, worked on that farm when they were 12.
“Billy and I grew up together and everyone who grew up in Fork worked on that produce farm,” Miller says, thinking back more than four decades. “We cut cabbage and picked tomatoes and beans. You name it and we did it. I can’t imagine 12-year-olds doing what we did then.”
He remembers five 12-year-olds, one 18-year-old and the grower and his wife picking 410 crates of cabbage, 250 to 300 boxes of tomatoes, 300 bushels of beans five days a week.
“You drive through Fork now toward Bel Air, you see the townhouses on the right,” he says, referring to a development along Harford Road. “That used to be a cabbage field.”
It was backbreaking work and Miller left it behind. Like his three older siblings, Jim, Butch and Polly, Joe decided to go to college. He chose Essex Community College and studied computer science. That lasted only until he got a part-time job with Delp as a hot-walker in February 1982. Miller was 19.
“I came here and fell in love with racehorses and I’ve been here ever since,” he says. “I loved it. It seemed like there was magic in the air. I’d never been around horses before.”
Miller worked for Delp for 15 years, got his trainer’s license and worked as an assistant trainer until 1997, when he decided to look for another job at the racetrack.
“I was going to get a job on the starting gate,” Miller says. “But there aren’t often openings.
“I heard about this job from Gary Schmidl [a former starting gate worker]. He told me they needed a horse ambulance driver because Philip “Buffalo” Sealing, the [then] current driver, was in bad health. John Passero, the track superintendent at the time, hired me.”
And that was the beginning of Miller’s stellar yet sad tale.
A shattering experience
Some race fans might know the name Joe Miller. He was in the news in 2006, when Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke through the Preakness starting gate and then on the restart suffered multiple fractures in his right hind leg.
It was Miller who got Barbaro into the horse ambulance and off the Pimlico track that day before a national audience. And it was Miller who prepared him inside the ambulance for the two-hour trip to New Bolton Center, in Kenneth Square, Pa., squeezing the horse’s body with the ambulance’s hydraulics, “enough so that it was holding him up so he didn’t really have to stand on that back leg that was broken.”
And it was Miller who made the ride with him, keeping the frightened horse as calm as possible.
Miller did a magnificent job that day, but to look at him telling the story with tears in his eyes and a quiver in his voice, you might not believe it.
“If they learned anything about laminitis that can help other horses, then OK,” he says of the condition that developed during Barbaro’s efforts to recover and eventually resulted in his death eight months later.
With tears falling, Miller says “Back legs are death sentences.”
Some horses suffer fatal injuries, but are still standing. The outcome is obvious. The veterinarian is going to have to put the horse down. But on the racetrack, Miller says, he is in charge, and he has his own protocol and he follows it even when it results in injury to himself.
“If the horse is going to get put down,” he says. “I’d rather see him on the ground [before the lethal injection], than watch him flop. That’s Joe’s rule.”
Like the horses he cares for, Miller is fragile.
On the day the police took him to the hospital, Miller said he hadn’t been sleeping for three months and was seeing his usual movie trailer inside his head, right before his eyes. It was a horror film created from what he has seen over his years on the job. The scenes appeared continually, re-running 24-7–complete with sound effects.
Those who know say no one should have to see even once what Miller has seen over and over.
“I thought I could separate myself from it,” he says. “And until last March or April I seemed to be OK. But after a while I couldn’t separate myself anymore. . . I never thought this would happen.”
Over the years, due to his efforts to help stricken horses, Miller has endured broken and dislocated shoulders, ribs and fingers. In early January he had surgery to repair vertebrae in his neck and only recently returned to the track.
While painful and debilitating, the physical injuries are healing. But he is still working on the mental part.
The morning shift
Miller says he had been trying for weeks to get counseling so when the three policemen escorted him to the Laurel Regional Behavioral Unit last July it was almost a relief.
After spending nearly a week there, he emerged with a diagnosis and a recovery program.
Miller was diagnosed with PTSD–Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many people associate the illness with military combat, but it can be caused by any seemingly life-threatening event or series of events that overwhelms a person with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
Research has found PTSD can impact those who pick up the pieces after catastrophes, such as emergency workers, police and other first responders. And horse ambulance drivers, as Trombetta said, are just like emergency care workers.
Miller is getting the counseling, and the medication, he needs. He also has the comfort of Einstein, the dog he rescued in Ohio, who was in bad shape because he refused to fight.
“He’s a 97-pound mutt,” Miller says, smiling. “He wouldn’t fight. He’d just roll over on his back. When I got him, he was fine, other than being extremely timid. He’s a lover. I named him Einstein. He’s smart and he makes me look like I know what I’m doing. . . He’s living the Life of Riley now.”
Miller also is making progress. In an effort to help him cope, Hale and track superintendent David Whitman have taken Miller off the afternoon race-day duties and limited his job to morning training sessions.
Still, horses have accidents during training, too, and Miller says he took one of those particularly hard.
After he returned to the racetrack last fall, he saw Voss’ runner Tygra, a horse he had come to know and who had been one of his peppermint recipients, suffer a fatal injury in training.
“That got to me,” Miller says. “My mind was somewhere else trying to protect itself. I had to actually think to myself, ‘slow down.’ ”
Miller is quiet as he lifts his camera to photograph the horses, visiting birds and the people passing by–shots he’ll put up on his Facebook page.
“The best part of my job is getting to sit here,” Miller says, the sun warm on his face. “If nothing breaks down, this is what I do all day. They’re more than happy to pay me to do nothing, and boring is fine with me.”
Later, he tries to explain how things are getting better mentally, too. “That video I was seeing in the forefront of my eyes, I still see it with my eyes open. But now it’s receded. Now I see what I’m looking at and that video is like wallpaper behind it.”
As January came to an end, the MJC decided to help Miller’s recovery more. Hale says he is no longer driving the horse ambulance.
Instead, he drives one of the track’s tractors, grooming Laurel’s racing surface, working to ensure the safety of the animals he loves.
Hale says she hopes once the winter weather–which requires the drivers to work through the night to keep the track in good condition–breaks, Miller will have more time to enjoy his photography and his dog.
Miller says the new job is a big adjustment, but he is willing to give it a chance.
“Change is hard, but I have to say the tractors are a lot better than the ones we had when I was growing up on the farm,” he says. “They have heat and air conditioning and I take my phone, plug the earphones in and listen to my music–mostly classic rock and roll. My favorite is AC/DC–and I don’t have to see [all the bad stuff].”
Miller pauses, he is not yet totally comfortable with this new way of life. But then, pulling himself together, he says. “I’ll figure something out. At the very least I’ll be taking pictures of wildlife.”
Hale says she hopes the move will reduce Miller’s trauma and stress and improve his health.
She also says Ricky Sweeney, who has taken over the horse ambulance duties, will have the job as long as he wants, but that supervisors will keep watch and step in if he, too, is overwhelmed by the job.