08/26/2004 12:00AM

Mack Miller's fond memories of Travers


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The last time that retired trainer Mack Miller visited Saratoga was in 1997, but his memories of the track, where he won two Travers Stakes in a seven-year span, are some of his fondest in his 45-year career.

Two of Miller's biggest wins at Saratoga came in the Travers with Java Gold in 1987 and Sea Hero in 1993. The late Paul Mellon, the man behind the legendary Rokeby Stable, owned Java Gold and Sea Hero. Miller, who retired at the end of 1995, trained for Mellon for 17 years.

Miller, who will turn 83 in October, is enjoying his retirement with his wife of 53 years, Martha. The Millers split their time between their homes in Aiken, S.C., and Versailles, Ky.

Neither Java Gold nor Sea Hero was a champion for Miller, who trained four Eclipse winners - Assagai, Hawaii, Leallah, and Snow Knight - but Miller has a special fondness for his Travers winners.

As a 2-year-old, Java Gold showed Miller a glimpse of the horse he would become by winning the Remsen. Java Gold, a son of the Rokeby-owned Key to the Mint, the 1972 Travers winner, is one of four horses in the last three decades to win the Whitney and Travers the same year. Key to Mint also accomplished the feat.

Unfortunately, Java Gold didn't race beyond his 3-year-old season. After winning the Marlboro Cup Handicap in the fall at Belmont Park, Java Gold was retired after he broke a bone in his foot while finishing second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

"I thought Java Gold was the best horse I ever trained," Miller said Wednesday from Kentucky. "He was quite the man. I thought he would have been a marvelous 4-year-old. I just loved him."

Miller, who was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame at Saratoga the year that Java Gold won the Travers, vividly remembers his first Travers victory.

"It was a terrible day with rain and mud," Miller said. "Mr. Mellon couldn't fly into the Saratoga airport because of the weather, so I went to Albany to pick him up. I had a horse, Jack of Clubs, who ran early in the card because the racing office asked me to run him, but I knew he couldn't win. I got back from the airport and somebody told me that Jack of Clubs won and paid $56. I felt like a fool."

Miller wasn't feeling too foolish later in the day when Java Gold splashed home a two-length winner over Cryptoclearance in the Travers. Java Gold defeated eight Grade 1 winners, including Alysheba, the eventual 3-year-old champion.

"I remember Mr. Mellon, who had all his beautiful suits made in England, walking right into the mud to lead Java Gold into the winner's circle," Miller said. "I looked at the right shoulder of his suit and it was covered with mud [from Java Gold's head]. I told him, 'Don't worry, Mr. Mellon, I'll buy you a new suit.' "

Sea Hero provided Miller and Mellon, who died in 1999, with their only Kentucky Derby win. Sea Hero, whose likeness is depicted in a bronze statue in the Saratoga paddock, was Mellon's fifth Travers winner, which ties George D. Widener for the most wins for an owner in the race.

Miller said Sea Hero's temperament didn't fit the profile of a horse who won two of the season's most important races for 3-year-olds.

"He was a very delicate horse; a bunch of nerves," Miller said. "He trained like a filly. He got lucky as a 3-year-old and luck is such an important part of the game."

After beginning their stud careers in Kentucky, both horses were later sent overseas - Java Gold to Germany and Sea Hero to Turkey. Java Gold's best runner is champion sprinter Kona Gold, and Sea Hero's top earner is multiple stakes winner Hero's Tribute.

Miller still has a hand in the horse business and owns a few broodmares in partnership with his longtime friend Dr. Smiser West, the owner of Waterford Farm in Midway, Ky. Miller and West sold a Tiznow yearling at this year's Saratoga select sale and will sell a couple more yearlings at Keeneland next month. They bred Chilukki, champion 2-year-old filly of 1999.

Miller and West, who is 95, get together five days a week at Waterford Farm to talk horses. Often their conversations turn to racing in Saratoga.

"I miss Saratoga," Miller said. "My last trip there was too long ago. I saw so many good horses run there."

And quite a few of those horses were ones trained by Miller.