12/15/2010 4:05PM

Barn walls speak of Miller's class


“I’m glad you called,” said Nick Zito. “I’m really glad you asked.”

Zito needed to get something off his chest.

“Mack Miller was a very, very classy, humble, terrific individual,” Zito said. “Just terrific.”

As limbs go, this one is not very shaky, and Zito has a lot of company in taking such a stand. In the wake of Mack Miller’s death on Dec. 11, at the age of 89, waves of like-minded sentiment have come washing ashore from all corners of the horse racing world.

It mattered not that Miller had been retired from training for 15 years, or for the past several years was pretty much confined to his home in the central Kentucky town of Versailles and the immediate neighborhood. This is because MacKenzie Miller was that most unusual of men, possessed of a timeless personality as deep as it was wide, embracing others with a kindness of spirit known only to those who have come to peaceful terms with their own peculiar place on this earth.

“I’m the luckiest guy I know,” Miller would say, always amazed such words could be uttered, especially by a kid of the Great Depression. He knew what it was to go hungry enough to dream of food, or to slip cardboard in his shoes when the soles wore through. But he knew he wasn’t alone, that it wasn’t a matter of bad luck. It was, at that point, simply the life in front of him.

Lucky, he called himself, and not just because he met Martha, the love of his life, or because he spent most of the last 30 of his 46 years as a trainer working privately by two of America’s big-shouldered Thoroughbred patrons, Charles Englehard and Paul Mellon. Miller would look back through his life and cite any number of moments that could have gone either way but didn’t, not the least of those being at the height of World War II, when he found himself on a gangplank in Seattle Harbor.

“I had one foot on a ship heading for Japan,” Miller recalled, “and the CO says, ‘Wait a minute. We don’t need two staff sergeants. We’ll toss a coin.’ “

Miller lost the toss, or won it, depending on your point of view. A lot of the men who got on the boat did not return. Miller served out his tour with the Army Air Corps on the local base, running the print shop, then returned to his hometown and commenced a career with horses. He took out his first trainer’s license in 1949.

Miller took the greatest delight in the people he had come to know in the business, including a long and lustrous list of horsemen who have benefited from the example set by Miller himself. Nick Zito considers himself one of the luckiest, since it is Miller’s barn at Belmont Park that Zito’s horses have occupied since 1995.

“I call them the Big Three,” Zito went on. “The Chief, obviously – Allen Jerkens. Sidney Watters, and Mack Miller. They have been what racing is about, at least what it should be about, and will always be about. They always remember that the game is bigger than them. That’s what Mack related to me a lot. He had dignity, and that’s a rare thing in our business.”

Zito describes the former Miller barn as the closest thing to a European-style yard found at an American racetrack. There is a comfy cottage with a screened porch, a quarter-acre of grazing grass, all of it circled by a covered, quarter-mile jogging track.

Miller set up shop in the barn in 1977, when Elliott Burch retired as head trainer of Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable. For those who believe in imbued spirits – and Zito is a believer – that means there lingers the imprint of such horses as Fort Marcy, Arts and Letters, Run the Gantlet, and Key to the Mint from the Burch era, along with Miller’s contribution, including Fit to Fight, Java Gold, Red Ransom, Eastern Echo, Glowing Tribute and her son, the Kentucky Derby and Travers winner Sea Hero.

“I’ve been blessed these last 15 years already to have inherited his barn,” Zito said. “And it wouldn’t have happened without his say-so. He even left me a couple of things around here – no trophies or anything like that – but a few of the old remedies he used, leg paints, that kind of thing. Unfortunately I used them all up.”

This reporter had the pleasure of being welcomed into the Miller home, usually around the time of the Kentucky Derby, when there was nothing better to do than share a bowl of mixed nuts, a soft drink, and enjoy the recollections of 60 years worth of racing history. Miller would apologize for not getting up, explaining that a bad ticker and attendant circulatory ailments had planted him semi-permanent in his Barcalounger, except for his routine trips to the local Kroeger’s to cruise the aisles aboard his mobility scooter.

“They’ve got me on Lasix, so I can’t stay out long because I’m peeing like a racehorse,” Miller would say with a grin. “I’m afraid I’m becoming known for a little reckless driving around there, too. A couple of displays took a beating.”

Such genial humility rang familiar to Neil Howard, trainer of classic winner Summer Squall and Horse of the Year Mineshaft, who worked for Miller through most of the 1970’s.

“He cast a giant shadow,” Howard said. “The great horsemanship was all there, to be sure. But what you learned being around Mack was how to be a gentleman, and what was expected of you. The way he acted was like every boy is taught by their mother when they’re five years old – treat everyone the way you’d want to be treated yourself.

“When I won my first really important stakes with Weekend Delight at Saratoga, Mack was so happy for me as a young trainer, but he also appreciated how important it was to win a race like that for owners like the Farish family,” Howard noted.

“I’ll never forget the sight of him pushing his way through the crowd to the winner’s circle to get to me that day,” Howard added. “I saw that hat of his, bobbing along above the crowd, and knew just who it was, because he was so tall. He still is.”