December 12, 2010

Farewell Mack Miller

The world of racing lost a great horseman and an even better man yesterday with the passing of Hall of Fame conditioner, Mack Miller. He died Saturday morning at the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Miller had been hospitalized since the 5th of December, after suffering a stroke. He was 89 years old. The passing of Miller represents the last, and for me, the finest of the old guard. Growing up, my father taught me to respect the old masters of the sport. Trainers like P.G. Johnson, Woody Stephens, Thomas Kelly, and of course, Mack Miller were mainstays of this group. Their charges could never be dismissed from a race simply because of the barns they represented. Miller was my absolute favorite of the bunch.

By the time I was eight years old, Miller, already a successful trainer, was named the private trainer for Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable. There was always a certain amount of magic connected to the yellow and gray silks of Rokeby. They were primarily homebreds of Mellon, who radiated beautiful pedigree and better looks. Rokeby and Miller did not have as many runners as some of the biggest outfits, but when you saw one in a race, you knew they had a big shot to win. Miller was a great horsemen and his horses came to the track ready to run. Sometimes I bet on them, sometimes I did not, but I always respected them.

Destined to be a horseman, Miller grew up a short drive from Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. After serving in the United States Air Force, in 1947 he came home to work for Calumet Farm. By 1949, Miller took out his own training license, and won his first race in 1950. In 1955, he trained his initial stakes winner, Oil Painting, and his first champion, Leallah, one year later. In the 60’s he became the private trainer for Charles W. Engelhard, Jr., for whom he conditioned such stalwarts as Halo, Tentam, and Hawaii. My appreciation for Miller was born through his Rokeby connection though, and horses like Upper Nile, Winter’s Tale, Fit to Fight, Wild Applause, Glowing Honor, Hero’s Honor, Java Gold, Crusader Sword, Red Ransom, and finally Sea Hero did Miller proud.

While Java Gold was the horse Miller considered to be his best, it was with Sea Hero that Miller finally won the Kentucky Derby. The big win came in 1993, six years after he had been inducted into Racing’s Hall of Fame. He was 71 and his friend and his longtime client Paul Mellon was 85, and together they formed as gentlemanly and likeable winning Derby pair as racing has ever known.

That was the thing about Miller, after 46 years as a successful trainer and breeder (He was the co-breeder of such nice horses as De La Rose, the 1981 Champion Female Turf Horse, Chilukki, the 1999 Champion Two-year-old Filly, and Kentucky Oaks winner, Lite Light), he may be remembered more for the person he was. I have met a lot of great people in nearly forty years as a fan of racing, but few hold the distinction of never having anything close to a negative thing being said about them. His friend Paul Mellon was one, and MacKenzie Miller was most certainly another.

10 comments:

Christopher said...

Great piece...

There was a terrific Derby documentary filmed in the mid-90s called "You Ain't Seen Nothin'" that featured among others Miller, Mellon, and the story of Sea Hero. Miller came across as a truly wonderful man. Doubt there will ever be another horseman quite like him.

Brian Zipse said...

Thank you Christopher. I am not familiar with that documentary ... I better check it out.

Mike in SB said...

I remember seeing Java Gold win the Travers in a driving rain, beating what I think was the best and deepest Travers field ever. I was a big Alysheba fan but you couldn't help but be happy for Mack Miller because he was such a great trainer and a very classy guy.

RayJay said...

I remember a story I heard about Mack Miller. He had a first time starter at Saratoga and Mr. Mellon was late getting to the track. The horse won at a nice price, and after the race Mack said to Mr. Mellon "If you had gotten here a little sooner, I could have made you a rich man!" They don't come any classier than Mack Miller.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, "You Ain't Seen Nothin'" isn't available on Netflix. I, too, would love to see that docu.

I am SOOO sad about Mack Miller's passing. I had the good fortune to meet him while working at NYRA and interact with him. The word being bandied about is "gentleman," but that is almost not quite ample enough for the kindly horseman with the porkpie hat. I absolutely adored and admired him. I think Carl Nafzger and Bill Mott are cut from the same cloth.

I *am* proud to own a coming-3YO filly who is a grand-daughter of Red Ransom. She looks every bit like her grandpa and when she steps onto the track for the first time next year I will think fondly of Mr. Miller.

Brian Zipse said...

Best of luck with your granddaughter of Red Ransom, Anonymous!

Anonymous said...

I saw him sitting alone at the barn during the Keeneland sales one time. Must have been early 2000s. I mustered up my courage and went up to him and introduced myself (I'm nobody), and told him I just wanted to say I hello, that he had always been a hero of mine. He was very gracious and humble about his accomplishments. A very very nice and gentle man.

Mr. H said...

He gave me my first Derby winner when the seas parted and Bailey brought Sea Hero through on the rail. He was all class.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Brian, for the very kind words about the legend named Mack Miller whom I simply called "Dad". Dad left our family and all who knew him with a legacy of integrity, honesty, and humiity. He was the same at home as he was at the track - a man who never forgot his humble beginnings and always kept us in line with old fashioned wisdom! Oh, how we will miss him, especially his rye sense of humor! I appreciate your thoughtful words!
Martha Queen

Brian Zipse said...

Martha, Thank you very much for taking the time to comment. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family at this trying time. As you can tell, I thought the world of your Dad.