Paul Mellon: Pillar of the Turf

Paul Mellon, pictured leading Fit to Fight, was well known for his philanthropy as well as his Thoroughbreds.
Paul Mellon, pictured leading Fit to Fight, was well known for his philanthropy as well as his Thoroughbreds. (BloodHorse library)

Paul Mellon was racing’s Renaissance man. Co-heir of the enormous Mellon Bank fortune, he turned in his banker's suit for life as a patrician collector of impressionist art, philanthropist, and racing impresario.

He never shared his father, Andrew W. Mellon’s, love for commerce, but he did inherit a dedication to giving something back to society. For the son, it became a way of life. Mellon’s gifts were bestowed to museums, libraries, and other diverse causes from creating parks and saving seashores to encouraging scholars and endowing America’s top poetry award, the Bollingen Prize.

Paul Mellon

Born: June 11, 1907, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Died: Feb. 1, 1999, Upperville, Va.

Champions: Mill Reef, Arts and Letters, Fort Marcy, Sea Hero, Gold and Ivory, Key to the Mint, Java Gold, and Winter’s Tale

Notable: Mellon is the only individual to win the Kentucky Derby, Epsom Derby, and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe

After graduating from Yale, Mellon studied history at Cambridge, where he was soon enamored by the breeding and racing of Thoroughbreds in the United Kingdom. Racing under the banner of Rokeby Stables, Mellon won the Eclipse Award for outstanding breeder in 1971 and then again in 1986.

Wearing a brown felt trilby and dressed in impeccably tailored suits, Mellon (1907- 1999) appeared every inch the international sportsman as he strode toward the winner’s circle in the world’s most prestigious races. Among his many exceptional runners were Hall of Fame members Arts and Letters and Fort Marcy. Other standouts included 1993 Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes winner Sea Hero, Belmont Stakes winner Quadrangle, and champions Key to the Mint and Run the Gauntlet.

Mellon also maintained a successful division of horses in Europe, including all-time great Mill Reef (bred in Virginia), who won both the Epsom Derby in England and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in Paris in 1971. But what crowned the whole experience, he said, was that three generations of Mill Reef's ancestors had come from his Rokeby Stables in Virginia, long his adopted home state. Mellon is the only owner to win those two marquee European races and the Kentucky Derby.

Mellon’s Thoroughbred operation was based at Rokeby, a spectacular 4,000-acre estate that rolled out of the Blue Ridge Mountains across the foxhunting country of Northern Virginia. Bordered by stone walls and split-rail fences, the Rokeby estate was known for its sweeping vistas, enormous paddocks, and greenhouses. After his marriage to Mary Conover Brown, the couple moved into a new Georgia-style mansion known as “the Brick House.”

Paul Mellon and Forest Flower
Paul Mellon and Forest Flower (John Crofts/BloodHorse library)

In this magnificent setting, the lives of Mellon, his wife, and children came to resemble those of the gentry pictured in English paintings that he collected and displayed in a private gallery at Rokeby. A lifelong bibliophile, Mellon owned 20,000 rare books, original documents of American history and beautifully illustrated works.

A dedicated horseman, Mellon possessed enough enthusiasm and skill at age 69 and 70 to compete in and win 100-mile endurance events.  A hands-on Thoroughbred owner, Mellon took great pride in knowledge of bloodlines and had a practiced eye for conformation.

He loved to see his horses win, but he once reminisced, “the sights and sounds of the countryside, as well as the color and action and excitement of the racecourse, are what turn me on: the mare suckling her foal, the renegade foal bothering all the others, the yearling who is boss of the field.”

Born on June 11, 1907, in Pittsburgh, Pa., Paul Mellon was the only son of Nora McMullen, an aristocratic English mother, and Andrew W. Mellon. A stone-faced financier, Andrew Mellon’s golden touch gave him a grip on much of American industry, including power, mining, civil engineering, and insurance. He was a Secretary of the Treasury under three presidents. Senator Robert M. La Follette observed in 1924, “Andrew W. Mellon today is the real President of the United States. Calvin Coolidge is merely the man who occupies the White House.”

Paul Mellon’s father also was a strong supporter of the arts, endowing the National Gallery of Art in Washington by a major bequest of “Great Masters” in the 1930s and also providing the funding to build a wing to house them.

Following in his father’s footsteps in 1976, Paul Mellon founded the Yale Center for British Art. In a quiet, unassuming way, Mellon continued to steward the National Gallery of Art and funded the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, the Yale Museum of British Art and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. His support of the arts, humanities, and environmental conservation approached a billion dollars in 21st Century dollars.

Mellon's love of horses dated back to his childhood.

“I bought my first racehorse in 1933, two years after I came home from Cambridge,” Mellon noted. “My father was quick to say that ‘any damn fool knows that one horse can run faster than another.’ ”

Racing fans are as likely as not to associate his name with his homebred Mill Reef, one of the greatest racehorses of all time who was campaigned strictly in Europe. By the end of 1970 Mill Reef, sporting his distinctive white noseband, had made Mellon’s English colors of black with a gold cross at the front and back a familiar sight in the winner’s enclosure following the leading 2-year-old races.

Paul Mellon admires Upper Nile.
Paul Mellon admires Upper Nile. (BloodHorse library)

In the lead-up to the 1971 Epsom Derby, certain turf writers doubted Mill Reef’s ability to stay the mile and a half and Mill Reef started at 100-30 favorite, a remarkably generous price. Jockey Geoff Lewis had Mill Reef perfectly positioned throughout and he was never troubled, winning easily by a long-looking two lengths.

In the much-anticipated Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Mill Reef broke clear in the stretch run and accelerated impressively to beat Pistol Packer by three lengths in course-record time.

Back in England, the colt had become very much a celebrity. Mill Reef won 12 of his 14 career races. His record of six consecutive Group 1 victories lasted for 30 years until Rock of Gibraltar equaled and then bettered it in 2002.

Mellon’s Arts and Letters had his best season as a 3-year old in 1969. He launched his winning streak by defeating older champion Nodouble in the Metropolitan Handicap. Next he avenged his losses in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness by defeating Majestic Prince in the Belmont Stakes.

At Saratoga, Arts and Letters easily won both the Jim Dandy and the Travers. The chestnut colt then took Belmont's Woodward Stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. At the end of the season, Arts and Letters was named Horse of the Year, champion 3-year old, and champion handicap male.

Carrying Rokeby’s gray and yellow colors Mellon’s horses won more than 1,000 stakes and had total earnings of more than of $30 million. But in 1993, the man who was a world-renowned owner and breeder never had won America's most coveted race, the Kentucky Derby.

In the 119th running of the Kentucky Derby, Mellon's homebred bay colt Sea Hero, a son of Polish Navy, thundered through a gap along the rail at the top of the stretch, reeled in the game but tiring Personal Hope in upper stretch and bounded off to an emphatic 2½-length victory in 2:02 2/5.

Mellon’s first Kentucky Derby win also broke the Derby maiden of his longtime trainer, then 71-year-old Hall of Famer MacKenzie “Mack” Miller, as well as that of Jerry Bailey, then a 35-year-old jockey.

“It was kind of like the Red Sea,” Bailey said with a wide grin. “Every time I got to a position where it was crucial, they parted for me.”

As for the 85-year old Mellon, he simply said: “I can hardly believe it. I'm in awe.”

Three months later in the Travers Stakes, Sea Hero took the lead from Devoted Brass and Belmont Stakes winner Colonial Affair near the eighth pole and flashed past the finish line two lengths the better of Kissin Kris. It was Mellon’s fifth Travers victory.

A private man - modest and mild-mannered - Paul Mellon was a wonderful conversationalist with a quick wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor. When once asked about his legacy, with classic modesty Mellon replied, “Over the years, I've bred some very good horses, but a hundred years from now, the only place my name will turn up anywhere will be in the stud book, for I was the breeder of Mill Reef.”

At a testimonial dinner of the Thoroughbred Club of America in 1975, Mellon recited his poem:                                    

The Day my final race is run

And, win or lose, the sinking sun

Tells me it’s time to quit the track

And Gracefully hang up my tack

I’ll thank the Lord the life I’ve led

Was always near a Thoroughbred.

Fun Facts

  • Once at a British hunt banquet during Mellon’s university days, wearing a pink hunting coat, he leapt from his chair and turned cartwheels down the table, then swung from a chandelier.
  • Mellon’s estate was once briefly home to First Lady Dolley Madison who landed at Rokeby, the home of a friend, when the White House was torched by the British in August 1814.
  • Mellon was one of the richest men in the U. S. during his adult lifetime.
  • Mill Reef was the #8 rated horse in the world for the 20th Century in A Century of Champions, by John Randall and Tony Morris.
  • Mellon was a trustee of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and was inducted into the English Jockey Club Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.
  • Mellon also served as vice chairman of The Jockey Club, director of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, and donated and bequeathed millions of dollars to support equine research and Thoroughbred aftercare programs.
  • Mellon established the Cape Hatteras National Seashore— memorialized by nothing but dune grass, scrub oak, and holly.
  • Mellon's autobiography, “Reflections in a Silver Spoon,” was published in 1992.

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