MacKenzie Miller: A Patient, Versatile Legend

Mack Miller, Paul Mellon, and Jerry Bailey after winning the Kentucky Derby in 1993 with Sea Hero. (Skip Dickstein/BloodHorse Library)

When MacKenzie Miller was a young man, he made a gallant effort to follow a “traditional” career path, one encouraged by his father. He started college, but didn’t graduate. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, but didn’t make a career of the military.

Instead, “Mack” Miller followed his passion and turned to training Thoroughbred racehorses. When he retired on his own terms in 1995, no one could deny that he had chosen the right path.

Six dozen stakes winners spoke volumes about his training acumen. The subtitle of a biography written by Jonelle Fisher — describing Miller as “The Gentleman Trainer from Morgan Street” — spoke volumes about his character.

Miller was just shy of 15 years old when he and his father attended the inaugural day of racing at Keeneland on Oct. 15, 1936. It was the day before Miller’s birthday, and this afternoon at the races proved memorable for Miller.

“I guess I really got hooked and fell in love with the Thoroughbred horse and the whole racing scene with its tradition of class and sportsmanship,” explained Miller in 1993, as later recounted by David Schmitz in the Dec. 18, 2010, edition of The BloodHorse.

Years later, when Miller had completed his military service, he returned to Kentucky, aimed high, and landed a job working for Calumet Farm, which was on a hot streak at the time and churning out champions and Kentucky Derby winners left and right.

Miller’s experience working for the nation’s leading breeding and racing operation proved fruitful, and in 1949 he went out on his own with an eye toward building a career as a trainer.

Miller with Carl Nafzger in 1998 at Kentucky Derby Alumni day. (BloodHorse Library)

It didn’t take long for Miller to make an impact. Teaming with owner-breeder Charlton Clay, Miller struck gold with the filly Leallah, who rattled off seven wins from eight starts in 1956, including stakes victories in the Alcibiades, Astoria, Arlington Lassie, and Colleen Stakes, to be named champion 2-year-old filly.

Ironically, given that his first champion was a juvenile, Miller ultimately became known as a patient trainer who excelled with grass runners, and that was never more apparent than when he conditioned Assagai for Charles W. Englehard Jr.’s Cragwood Stable. The colt lost all eight of his races as a 2-year-old in 1965, but Miller didn’t lose hope. The following year, as Assagai began to show improvement, Miller tried the son of Warfare on grass, and Assagai promptly rattled off victories in the Long Branch Stakes, Tidal Handicap, Bernard Baruch Handicap, United Nations Handicap, and Man o’ War Stakes, with the latter four triumphs coming against older horses.

Assagai was an easy choice as the champion grass horse of 1966, a title that Miller and Cragwood Stable would team up to win again in 1969 with Hawaii. A star runner in his native South Africa, Hawaii’s consistency and powerful rallies from off the pace carried him to victories in the Stars and Stripes Handicap, Bernard Baruch Handicap, United Nations Handicap, Sunrise Handicap, and Man o’ War Stakes.

Indeed, through the years Miller would train seemingly countless winners of major turf races. Four more victories in the United Nations would follow, plus three more wins in the Bernard Baruch and a quartet of triumphs in the Diana Handicap. He could work magic with foreign imports; when he took over the training of 1974 Epsom Derby winner Snow Knight, who was in the midst of a losing streak, Miller managed to revitalize the notoriously tricky colt and secured victories in the Canadian International Championship Stakes, Manhattan Handicap, Seneca Handicap, Man o’ War Stakes, and Brighton Beach Handicap, sufficient to make Snow Knight the champion grass horse of 1975.

Still, to focus on Miller’s grass champions is to overlook the preponderance of success he enjoyed (particularly later on) with high-class dirt horses. A perfect example was Tentam, a multi-surface threat whom Miller seamlessly transitioned from surface to surface during a productive career that included victories in the Metropolitan Handicap on dirt and the United Nations Handicap on turf, an unusual combination that spoke wonders of Tentam’s versatility and Miller’s training skill.

Another milestone came in 1977, when Miller became the private trainer for Paul Mellon’s powerful Rokeby Stables, a high-profile partnership that would last until Miller’s retirement. Their first “big horse” together was Winter’s Tale, a tough gelding who would win four Grade 1 races (including two renewals of the Suburban Handicap) from 1980-83. Then, in 1984, Miller worked his patient magic to turn the formerly unremarkable sprinter/miler Fit to Fight into a beast of a handicap star, training the son of Chieftain to win the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn Handicaps. That made Fit to Fight the fourth and most recent horse in history to sweep the very difficult “Handicap Triple Crown.”

The Rokeby partnership also allowed Miller to race some top-class younger runners. Java Gold won the Remsen Stakes as a juvenile in 1986, then went on a tear during the second half of his 3-year-old season, winning the 1987 Travers Stakes and beating older males in the Whitney Handicap and Marlboro Cup Invitational, all Grade 1 events. That same year, they won the Hopeful Stakes with Crusader Sword, and Rokeby and Miller even won the prestigious Futurity Stakes in 1990 with Eastern Echo.

But as Miller’s career began to wind down in the early 1990s, there was still one major prize missing from his Hall of Fame record —a victory in the Kentucky Derby. Miller had saddled just one horse in the historic run for the roses, that being longshot Jig Time, who crossed the finish line sixth in 1968.

“It was never that I didn’t want to come [and run in the Derby],” said Miller in an article by Rick Bozich in the May 1, 1993, edition of Louisville’s Courier-Journal. “It was only that I didn’t want to come if I couldn’t win.”

Finally, Miller found the right horse. Paul Mellon’s homebred Sea Hero gave notice of his potential with a powerful victory in the 1992 Grade 1 Champagne Stakes, and while his winter prep season did not go as planned — he was beaten in every one of his starts leading up to the 1993 Kentucky Derby — Miller’s brilliant training ultimately helped the colt flourish. A decision to ship Sea Hero from Gulfstream Park in Florida to Aiken, S.C., at the end of February seemed to make a difference, as Sea Hero regained his lost vigor and ultimately unleashed a steady rally through the Derby field to draw clear and win by 2 ½ lengths.

At that point, the aging Mellon had already begun the process of dispersing his breeding stock, and Miller wound down alongside Mellon, sending out his final starter, Brigade of Guards, to finish fourth in the first race at Aqueduct on Nov. 17, 1995. But true to his passion, he didn’t leave the sport entirely, remaining involved as a breeder in partnership with Dr. R. Smiser West. They had already teamed up to breed the 1981 champion turf female De La Rose, and following Miller’s retirement from training, they made headlines again with the 1999 champion 2-year-old filly Chilukki and the Grade 1 winner Tweedside, who was — just like her co-breeder — versatile enough to win major races on both dirt and turf.

Miller passed away in 2010 at the age of 89, and the industry universally mourned the loss of a skilled horsemen and a gentleman. Perhaps the best example of his gracious nature came when Sea Hero won the Derby, and Miller was quick to turn the attention away from himself and toward the horse and breeder who made the glorious moment possible.

“I really never thought I’d win a Derby,” Miller marveled in an article by Jennie Rees published in the Courier-Journal of May 1, 1993. “My time was running out. But I have this marvelous owner — patient, kind, and breeds very, very nice horses. I’m thrilled to death for him. I’m not important. He is.”

Well Miller, we beg to disagree on one point. You might be the only one to ever deny your importance to the sport of Thoroughbred racing.

Fun Facts

  • Miller was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1987.
  • One of Miller’s six United Nations winners was Halo, who went on to become a highly influential stallion, siring the Kentucky Derby winners Sunday Silence and Sunny’s Halo.
  • Records for Miller’s training career are incomplete, but he won more than 1,100 races between 1955 and 1995 (with purse earnings totaling nearly $31 million), and from 1971 onward he averaged a 20-percent win rate.

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