Mack Miller (right) in the paddock with Paul Mellon (PhotoS courtesy of Horsephotos).
Statistics are not necessarily the best measure of greatness.
In a career that spanned some 45 years, trainer MacKenzie “Mack” Miller won “only” 1,104 races, a seemingly low number for a Hall of Famer.
Miller’s work, though, revolved around quality, not quantity. What made him special and so widely respected was his uncanny ability to bring out the talent in his horses, and to always conduct himself as a gentleman in the truest sense of the word.
MacKenzie "Mack" Miller
Born: Oct. 16, 1921
Died: Dec. 10, 2010
Champions: Leallah (1956 Champion 2-year-old filly)
Miller was born on Oct. 16, 1921 in Versailles, Ky., and started his career in racing in 1947 when he became a stable worker for the famed Calumet Farm. Miller was paid $125 a month back then, though he would later say he would have happily worked for free.
He took out his trainer’s license in 1949, but it took six years for him to win his first stakes race.
A year later, he saddled his first champion when Leallah became the champion 2-year-old filly for 1956 and the humble Kentuckian’s reputation began to grow.
His career took off like a skyrocket, though, in the 1960’s when he became the trainer for Charles Engelhard’s Cragwood Stables.
MACK MILLER AT KEENELAND
Miller and Engelhard had a great run of success as they campaigned a pair of turf champions in Assagai (1966) and Hawaii (1969) and other stakes winners such as Halo, Mr. Leader, Protanto, Larceny Kid, Red Reality and Rest Your Case, who were victorious in important races like the United Nations, Hopeful, Whitney, Jerome Handicap and Bernard Baruch.
Though Engelhard died in 1971, Cragwood continued to operate for a few more years and Miller nearly had another turf champ for that outfit in Tentam, who won five stakes in 1973 but lost the crown to Secretariat.
Miller went on to become the trainer of Epsom Derby winner Snow Knight, who in 1975 gave him a third turf champion, but his best years were yet to come.
In 1977, he became the trainer for Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stables and together the two great sportsmen produced a long list of graded stakes winners and built a great friendship.
Late in his career, Miller was quoted in the New York Racing Association media guide as saying, “The most rewarding (aspect of my job) comes from the man I work for. Mr. Mellon is perhaps the greatest owner who has ever come down the road. He has been good to me, and we’ve had an awfully good relationship.”
MILLER AT SARATOGA
Among the great Rokeby runners Miller produced were 1984 New York Handicap Triple Crown winner Fit to Fight and 1980 Marlboro Cup winner Winter’s Tale. He also trained multiple-stakes winners such as Crusader Sword, Dance of Life, Danger’s Hour, Glowing Tribute, Hero’s Honor, Key To Content and Who’s To Pay.
The most talented of the 72 stakes winner Miller trained in his career, though, might have been Rokeby’s Java Gold, who in 1987, the same year as Miller was inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame, won the Whitney, Travers and Marlboro Cup.
Yet for all of Miller’s success in so many of the sport’s most famous races, he was a nearly invisible figure in the Triple Crown. In more than four decades of training, he had just a combined six starters in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes – a figure nearly matched by a contemporary like Todd Pletcher in a single Derby.
Miller’s two Derby starters, for instance, came 25 years apart as the patience that Miller employed in developing his horses usually worked against preparing them for the rigors of the Triple Crown.
MILLER WATCHES A RACE FROM THE STANDS
But in 1993, in what would be their last chance, Miller and Mellon finally came up with their Derby horse and they seized the moment to the fullest.
After carrying Rokeby’s grey and yellow silks to victory in the 1992 Champagne Stakes, Sea Hero flopped in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and lost his next three races after that. But Miller kept him on the Kentucky Derby Trail and on the first Saturday in May of 1993 the foundation Miller put into him paid off. Under a perfect ride by jockey Jerry Bailey, Sea Hero rallied from 13th to give the 71-year-old Miller and 85-year-old Mellon the win they had waited a lifetime for.
Sea Hero went on to win the Travers but was winless at four as Rokeby’s operations began to slow. In 1995, when Mellon decided to liquidate his racing stock, Miller retired from training but stayed active in the sport as a breeder.
He died on Dec. 10, 2010, at the age of 89, and was mourned throughout the racing industry for both his great talent as a trainer and the class he exhibited from his first day in the sport until his very last.
"Mack was a great, great horse trainer, but an even better human being," Bailey said in Daily Racing Form after Miller’s death. "All I have about him is kind words. He was like a second dad away from home for me. There are probably quite a few characters on the racetrack, but for me, as an impressionable young man in New York at 25, my hooking up with Mack was probably the best thing that ever happened to me."
Fun facts about Mack Miller