12/14/2010 2:40PM

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.