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MacKenzie Miller, gentleman trainer
My memories of Mack Miller are not generally specific moments so much as moments in time – a time that seems surreal, with soft edges, like a Vaughn Flannery painting.
I remember the Rokeby morning sets drifting through the Saratoga paddock – a line of horses and riders splashed with yellow, the riders’ jackets emblazoned with ROKEBY across the back. And the barn, with its touches of grey and yellow. I remember Mack Miller’s wonderful trademark hats and seem to recall his wife once telling me they sometimes washed his cloth hats in a dishwasher (could that be?).
I remember his gentlemanly ways, his attentive love of his horses - and his smile as clearly as if he were standing before me now.
Tils (that’s what we all called her) seemed ever-present, smiling or laughing as she galloped topnotch horses such as her favorite You’d Be Surprised. The exercise rider of Sea Hero - was his name Pierre? - was always polite as he passed, calling out a good morning. And young Jamie was such a sweetheart, a gentle rider with a shy smile who always made me feel special. I sometimes wonder where he ended up.
The Rokeby silks…were any more famous? There was Paul Mellon in the Belmont paddock, sitting so properly, cane in hand, on a white metal chair near the Secretariat statue. I remember Mr. Mellon and Mack Miller deep in thought in the paddock before the 1993 Travers - or do I just remember it as a snapshot? Photos also reflect Jerry Bailey with Mack, Jerry in grey-and-yellow silk as Mack stood thoughtful and dapper.
I remember Mack being interviewed by Mary Ryan at Belmont many years ago. Their conversation was relaxing and comforting – Mack’s voice always soothed - although I remember specifically just one story. He was not adverse to having horses gelded, he said, joking that he was sometimes called “Mack the Knife.”
The racing museum, for many years, showed a movie in its Hall of Fame room in which Mack was featured. In it, he described what he looked for in a horse. With his record, it is clear he had great vision.
Mack’s horses gallop through my mind: Eastern Echo breaking his maiden at Saratoga in mid-August 1990 and adding the Futurity not long after, You’d Be Surprised at Pimlico, Glowing Honor winning her second Diana on a DQ. Memories of Who’s To Pay come back easily, the chestnut tough actor rearing and lunging in the paddock before his races as assistant Danny Furr held on tight.
There were Danger’s Hour, Coronation Cup, Winter's Tale, England Expects, a mare named Secret Sharer providing a friend a daily double, Fit To Fight galloping home a Handicap Triple Crown winner, Red Ransom setting a Saratoga track record in his very first start on opening day at Saratoga 1989, 31-year-old Glowing Tribute trying her best to stay far from this photographer in a pensioner’s field in Kentucky….
And, of course, there was Glowing Tribute’s most famous son Sea Hero – such a solid name - winning the Kentucky Derby and Travers. Mack was so kind back at the barn after the Travers, quietly offering a carrot to his testy winner upon our photographic request. And then there was Java Gold. Can 23 years really have passed since the sweet-faced 3-year-old powered home in the Marlboro Cup, bringing the curtain down not only on his career but also that storied race?
Below: Java Gold at Saratoga in 1987
Below: Sea Hero with Mack Miller (and sweet Jamie) after their 1993 Travers win
Below: Sea Hero winning the 1993 Kentucky Derby, and at Gulfstream Park as a two-year-old
Below: Old fan favorite Winter's Tale
Below: Eastern Echo, Who's To Pay, Red Ransom (NTR), Java Gold Travers, Glowing Honor Diana, Who's To Pay Bernard Baruch
Mack leaves behind his wife Martha. Fifty-nine years together, his obituary reads. Think of that. A gracious woman with such kind eyes, Martha kept up with correspondences and appointments. She accompanied Mack to my book signings and sent thank-you notes and Christmas cards signed, “Love, M & M” – as if people she barely knew were beloved family members.
Fifteen years have passed since Mack Miller retired in autumn 1995. His Belmont barn is now home to Nick Zito’s horses, and Bill Mott trainees circle Mack’s old Saratoga shedrow.
I have a singular memory of that autumn of 1995, so clear I can still feel it: Mack walking alone, through the tunnel at Belmont, with orange autumn leaves both overhead and under foot. I remember literally aching as I took the photo, realizing I would not see his like at the track again.
Martha and Children, It was so hard for us in Aiken to come to terms with the fact that we'd never see Mack again. What a wonderful person Mack was, and he was always the consummate gentleman. We'll miss him but will always have those great memories of seeing you and Mack in the store or just busily moving about the community. All of you have been special to the city of Aiken, and we especially enjoyed the fact that you gave so much to each of us. We share your loss. I'm sure that Mack would want you to go ahead and have an enjoyable and memorable Christmas, and we wish that for you.
Thank you so much Barbara. Fittingly enough, Rokeby's last Saratoga winner was named Pastures New and when I last spoke with Mr. Miller in 1999, he was delighted that the horse was still competing at Suffolk Downs. His take on Sea Hero's Kentucky Derby: "The good Lord just decided it was time."
I had the great honor of meeting Mr. Miller at Saratoga, I saw him at the paddock area but I was afraid to approach him so my wife went over to him and asked him if he would talk to my son and I. He came over to us and talked for sometime it was a great thrill for me to think he would talk to us.My prayers and thoughts go out to his family Dan Marlman
What a wonderful piece-to have just a snippet on the life of Mack Miller-a true gentleman and horseman- thank you.
Thank you so much, again, to everyone who's posted. It's especially interesting to have so much feedback from people who worked for Mr. Miller or who had positive memories of meeting him. I so appreciate all of the comments... - Barbara
Barbara, I was visiting the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga recently with a friend with whom I often went to the races at Saratoga when we were young teens in the late 1960s, but who, to my amazement, had never been to the museum and its Hall of Fame. As we strolled through the Hall, slowly reading the plaques for its famous members, I stopped to read Mr. Miller's plaque. I was reminded of those wonderful years when he was such a prominent fixture in racing. I recalled meeting him (only once, unfortunately) at a cocktail party in Saratoga one August evening many years ago, and, while I don't remember the precise details of our exchange, I remember thinking he was as gracious as I imagined (from having seen him interviewed on racing television programs of the era), making a very shy young woman, slightly awestruck at meeting one of the sport's legendary trainers, feel at more at ease. I have thought of Mr. Miller often over the years since his retirement because I miss seeing horsemen, and women, of such graciousness and character in the sport. He was part of a rare breed and the epitome of a fine gentleman, not only in racing, but in life. What a superb role model he was. Thank you for sharing your fond recollections and beautiful photos, and for inspiring so many others who knew him well to add their memories of Mr. Miller to your post. We've surely lost one of the great ones, but how lucky we were to have had him in our midst.
Great photos Barbara, i was blessed to grow up on Rokeby. I worked at the farm but always remember Mr. Miller and his visits to the farm. He was always a kind and friendly gentleman. I do not think we will ever see a combination of two great men as Mr. Miller and Mr. Mellon in this industry ever again. Thanks for the memories. Lee White
Hello Barbara, thank you so much for this gracious tribute to Mr. Miller. Reading all the comments is a reminder, as if that were necessary, how fortunate I was to exercise ride for him in Aiken, South Carolina. Reading so many superb horses names that are babies and grandbabies of the horses I rode for him makes chills run up my spine. Maybe now, more than ever the amazing memories I have from that winter are appreciated. Mr. Millers assistant, Danny Furr, taught me a classic lesson: when Mr. Miller asked you at the track how you thought the horse was doing, you always responded great or fine. If it was only fine, he would ask you what was wrong when he got back to the barn. He never wanted a negative word spoken at the track. My Corgi was the only employees dog allowed to come to the barn in the mornings. She stayed in the tack room while we exercised the horses, then was allowed to run around and play with Mr. Miller's beloved Jack Russell terriers. Another enduring memory is from many years later when at the Keeneland November Sales. I spent 20 minutes or so talking with Mr. Miller in the back ring area. At the conclusion of our conversation he said, "thank you Lady Phoebe (his pet nickname for me) for taking the time to talk with an old man." His humility was stunning because there was I thinking, "wow, a Hall of Fame trainer just took this time to spend talking with me!" >
They don't make them like Mack any more. Mack, you're now training the great ones in the sky!
Thank you for this Barbara. I was fortunate enough to work for Mr Miller for 2 years 1993-1995 until his retirement. He was truly a gentleman and a wonderful trainer to work, and i would have loved to have joined his team earlier than i did. I was also fortunate to ride You'd be surprised, and even Sea Hero a few times. It was a special time in my life which i will never forget.