Between 2003 and 2006, Zach Miller was an up-and-comer on the National Steeplechase Association circuit, developing his skills with top-tier horsemen and getting a leg up on stalwarts like Erin Go Bragh, Thegooddieyoung, Dr. Ramsey, Imperial Gold, and I’m Hit Sarge. Over those four seasons, the Charlottesville, Va., native rode in 103 races, winning 19, finishing second 10 times, and third, 20. Not a bad start.
But as quickly as it began, that’s how abruptly his competitive riding days ended. The knee injury Zach suffered in a post parade at Strawberry Hill — the scene of his first triumph under rules — was “pretty nasty,” but not necessarily career-ending.
“I was 22, engaged, and facing the prospect of a long recovery,” Zach reminisced. “The Injured Jockeys Fund helped with medical expenses, which was clutch, but there wasn’t a great safety net for riders facing a lengthy sideline stint. On top of that, I knew that no matter how long I continued to ride there would be an end, the need for a new career, and I was watching some friends who were part way into that process struggle with it. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to return to Charlottesville to my parent’s basement and finish school.”
Zach’s decision would prove fateful and, in reality, and he never did end up leaving home. Fifteen years later and he remains on the family’s Timbercreek Farm where he was raised — next to Foxfield Race Course — along with his wife, Sara, a fellow ex-equestrienne, and children Emory, 10, Sanders, 9, and Truitt, 6.
Upon returning to Charlottesville, Zach enrolled in the University of Virginia, studied environmental science and Spanish language, and became actively involved in the management of the farm. Zach and Sara would also go on to launch their own Timbercreek Farm artisan line of sustainably raised grass-finished beef, which serves the local restaurant market.
While many budding jockeys would have been haunted by such an abrupt and premature end to their dreams, Zach was philosophical about it. “My life has always been more ‘crime of passion’ than premeditated. My departure from riding races was as much by chance as my entrance.” And that brings us to how Zach became a jockey in the first place.
Horses were part of Zach’s life from the beginning, largely through his grandmother, who owned a few racers and made sure there was always a pony around for her grandchildren to ride. As luck would have it, 12-year-old Zach attended a party at the farm following the Foxfield Races, where he was introduced to fabled Swiss equestrian Felix Nuesch. Nuesch, who trained a winner on the card for Zach’s grandmother, was accompanied by the jockey who had ridden the winner. That jockey was Ricky Hendriks. Meeting Nuesch and Hendriks made a lasting impression on the youngster, and the relationship with both would eventually bear fruit.
When Zach turned 14, Nuesch invited the teen to work for him at Braeburn Thoroughbred Training Center — which specialized in prepping young race horses — in Crozet, pitching the idea to Zach’s non-horsey parents as a way to round out his equestrian education.
“I learned to gallop and care for horses that were headed off to a variety of trainers at the major tracks,” he said. “At that time, Morven Stud was active in Charlottesville and the majority of their horses came through Braeburn on their way to the races. I didn’t understand it then, but I got to sit on some really nice future race horses.” Indeed, Nuesch and his family broke and trained horses for owners such as Lael Stable, Christiana Stable, Morven Stud, and Al Fried Jr., with Grade 1 winners including Thunder Rumble, Unaccounted For, and Waquoit receiving their early educations at Braeburn.
When Zach returned to school in the fall after his first summer at Braeburn, Nuesch agreed to coach him in exchange for help with re-schooling ex-racers, an arrangement that would last for three years. One day, Nuesch decided that Zach needed to jump a few fences at speed to get a sense of what the “steeplechase” phase of the event would feel like. There were a pair of stout natural hedges on the schooling course intended for the purpose, and Zach remembers his teacher’s simple matter-of-fact instructions uttered in a thick Swiss-German accent: “Sit tight and let him roll.” That was the game changer that altered the trajectory of Zach’s future.
“There really is no feeling in the world, or at least in my experience, like running down over a set of fences on a fast, free jumping horse,” Zach said. “The horse I rode that day had been a low-end claimer in his flat racing days, but he was scopy and bold at a fence. Twenty years later that day still stands out as the pivotal moment in my life. Until that day, I had never considered a career in horses. After that day, you couldn’t have convinced me that I would do anything else.”
But, of course, reality has a way of colliding with aspirations and, as often happens, Zach ultimately chose another path. In fact, he hadn’t really thought much about the old days until an unexpected phone call last fall led to a reunion with the sport that had once meant so much to him.
The call came from Dr. Reynolds Cowles, a neighbor and long-time acquaintance who operates Blue Ridge Equine Clinic “around the corner.” Dr. Cowles, who also serves as the NSA’s safety director, contacted Zach because Foxfield had gotten permission to run its fall meet on two week’s notice, and he was scrambling for volunteers to make it a reality.
Zach agreed, and the rest is history: “Watching the races stirred me. I realized after being there how much I missed horses and racing. Being logical (sort of) I thought ‘this is just fanciful.’ In short, I tested my interest by going back to Braeburn which is now run by Felix Nuesch’s son, Pat, and asked him if I could ride out as a volunteer on the weekends. A few weeks of knocking the dust off and a couple of short speed works later, the fire was re-kindled.”
Fast forward to February 2021. Zach just recently received his NSA trainer’s license, and he already has one horse in training for a syndicate of friends he put together. “The objective is to provide tons of fun, owner access and engagement opportunities not just on race day but throughout the preparation and training process,” Zach said. “We hope to continue to build on that model as we have success.” And if all goes well, Zach will have a starter or two on the NSA trail this spring and, along with that, the makings of yet another new chapter on his journey.
The making of a jump jockey
Zach Miller wasn’t born in the saddle, and his journey was particularly challenging because he entered the sport as an outsider. He had the drive to convince Felix Nuesch to take a chance on him, and eventually persuaded Nuesch to introduce him to steeplechase trainer Ricky Hendriks, who put him to work with his horses at Fair Hill. Zach credits Hendriks, Bruce Miller, Doug Fout, Richard Valentine, and Eddie Graham, among others, with teaching him valuable lessons, some of which “I understood immediately” while others “have required time and distance to fully comprehend.”
● On Ricky Hendriks: “Ricky was my first job and he gave me a real immersion course in horse racing. As a former rider, he helped me transition from my sport-horse background into a competent exercise and schooling rider. The retrospective with Ricky is coming to understand his mastery of bringing even marginal horses back to form. That is a real art form.”
● On Bruce Miller: “My time with Bruce (no relation) was influential partly because his classical style of training resonated with my experience as a kid. Training off the farm, incorporating the elements of interval galloping, show-jump schooling and fox hunting created well rounded, sound equine athletes and opened my eyes to the utility of my own riding background as an asset to developing racing horses. Bruce gave me my first ride in a race, and having access to (his daughter and son riders) Blythe and Chip as coaches meant that winners followed. They were both excellent tactical riders and so good at getting horses to relax and jump well. Blythe also taught me how to get a horse into condition and retain it through increasing rigors of training.”
● On Eddie Graham: “When I worked for Bruce, Eddie was his assistant. He has a real knack for injury management and rehabilitation, and we had a lot of success with Bruce’s older, lower-caliber horses because of how well Eddie was able to individually tailor the training programs to accommodate the inherited issues. He is also constantly pushing to improve his own results and applied the same approach to helping me work through weaknesses in my own riding and horsemanship. Eddie also understands the importance of developing depth in his supporting team and was committed to ferreting out obstacles to team cohesion to the benefit of the whole stable. With all of Eddie’s skills, it’s no wonder he went out on his own to become a successful trainer.”
● On Richard Valentine: “I was still an apprentice when I came to Whitewood, but Richard was willing to take a chance on me and put me on some really nice horses. I had some memorable wins. The first came at Foxfield in front of my family and hometown crowd. And when Richard sent me out on a winner at Saratoga that my family got to watch live on television, it seemed to click for them that this whole ‘horse business nonsense’ was more than a recreational pursuit for me, not some odd, side adventure. Richard is a trainer who can extract great efforts from unique horses. Mauritania was perhaps the most notable example of how Richard applies this skill. Richard lives inside the heads of his horses. He understands what motivates and what worries them. His attention to detail is exquisite.”
● On Doug Fout: “What sets Doug apart from other trainers is the optimism and personal emotional investment he imbues in the operation. He is the type of guy who makes the sport better. Doug recruited me as a development project, but after I arrived, Matt McCarron broke his wrist. To preserve Matt to ride Hirapour, the defending champ, Doug threw me up on a slew of horses in my first half season with him. I’m still amazed at how much confidence he had in me. As an accomplished jockey, Doug breaks down a race strategically, analyzes the horses’ running styles, tells you how to handle different pace scenarios, and predicts how the tendencies of other riders will influence the outcome. Doug also excels at setting up horses for improvement. It happened with I’m Hit Sarge. ‘Sarge’ was a NW2 over jumps when he came to Doug. Doug got him dialed in, won some races, but then the horse hit a flat spot. Doug regrouped, freshened him, and after picking a couple of soft races, dropped him in with stakes company at Aiken in the spring of 2006. I’m not sure any of us believed he would win, but he was fit, galloped through the last fence, and kept going past better horses for the upset. (Owner) Tom Kirlin was so excited that he threw his hands up in the air and accidentally caught Doug in the nose! The win picture has Tom beaming and Doug holding a blood-soaked handkerchief to his face.”
To see an in-depth gallery of photos of Zach Miller, please visit HERE on Tod Marks’ page