Lexington, KY — It has been quite a 2021 for Indiana native Atlee Bender. On March 21 he married Hannah Miller, the daughter of Illinois Hall of Fame trainer Erv Miller, and his fledgling driving career has continuously picked up steam, culminating most recently with a four-win night at Hawthorne Race Course on Sunday (June 6).
With his driving grand slam, Bender soared to seventh in the Hawthorne drivers’ standings with 11 wins in 63 starts. Combined with seven winner’s circle trips at Harrah’s Hoosier Park, Bender’s 85 drives this year have resulted in 18 wins and $134,325 in earnings. Both numbers are highs in a career that began just five years ago and now totals 67 wins and $539,900 in purse earnings.
“And it’s real early in the year, so that’s a good thing,” the 29-year-old Bender said with a laugh, who along with his wife train a stable of 48 for Miller at the Indianapolis fairgrounds.
Born and raised in Goshen, Ind., Bender’s first exposure to harness racing came when he said he was too young to understand the sport when an uncle owned Standardbreds. He eventually gravitated toward the pony races that are popular in the Hoosier State. Later, after leaving his job working in a trailer factory that produced travel campers in 2014, he went to work for Miller.
“After high school I worked at the trailer factory and I realized I didn’t want to do that for too long,” remembered Bender. “I loved the pony races and tried to do the horses full time. I got the job with Erv in 2014 and have been there ever since.
“My intentions when I went to work for Erv was to learn the business. I wanted to see what it involved. I wanted to train, drive, whatever, just get my foot in the door and see where it took me. As it went on, I eventually tried to be a driver.
“I’m just getting the hang of it. My priority was working with Erv and the horses. Obviously, Marcus (Miller’s son) is there and he gets to drive everything so I took what I got.”
Miller said having Marcus as the go-to driver on the East Coast prompted the Benders move to the Midwest.
“That’s why we moved Atlee to the Midwest; we had to get him where he can get more action,” said Miller. “Since he was a little boy they tell me he wanted to drive horses. It was the pony races at first and then for us. Atlee is just a good guy and he’s doing a good job for us. He’ll make it and become a top driver in the Midwest.”
Bender’s first drive came in early July 2016 at Goshen, N.Y., and then in his second drive, on July 30, he directed Jet Airway to a 1:50.4 victory at Vernon Downs as the 6-5 betting favorite. He finished the year with nine wins in 39 starts, before tallying 12, 13 and 11 wins over the next three years, respectively. He won four times in the shortened 2020 season due to the pandemic.
Everything came together for Bender on June 6 at Hawthorne when he scored his four-bagger, including two for trainer Miller, one for trainer Cordarius Stewart, and another for trainer Kevin Miller (Erv’s first cousin).
“It felt great. Something I never felt before,” Bender answered when asked about his four-win binge. “It was a good feeling. It was fun. Now that I’m out here, and at a track like Hawthorne, maybe I can turn it into something and see where it takes us.”
Bender said having Miller as his mentor is priceless.
“Erv’s best advice has been to keep your head down and keep going,” said Bender. “I always take it to heart, he says, ‘Don’t try to look cool in the bike, when you look cool in the bike is when you are winning races.’ It’s kind of funny, but I try to keep my head down and keep grinding. Once you start winning races people will start to notice instead of you trying to do something to make you look good.”
Bender said he’s probably best right now at keeping “an aggressive horse calm,” something he learned from Miller.
“Erv really teaches the young trotters to be calm or just stay cool in the bike and not get over anxious,” said Bender.
Bender said Miller will also critique each drive afterward.
“He will call every night after the races or the next morning and we’ll go through how the horses raced and what needs to be done or what I need to be doing different,” he said.
Bender said he also receives daily advice from his wife, who has had a successful driving career as an amateur with 105 wins to her credit and two-time honors as the Amateur Driver of the Year.
“Oh yeah, she’ll let me know if I drive one bad,” Bender laughed. “But she’s my biggest fan, that’s for sure.”