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Pillar of the Turf: Paul Mellon left an incredible legacy
“I have been an amateur in every phase of my life,” Paul Mellon wrote in his 1992 autobiography, “Reflections in a Silver Spoon.”
“An amateur poet, an amateur scholar, an amateur horseman, an amateur farmer, an amateur soldier, an amateur connoisseur of art, an amateur publisher, and an amateur museum executive. The root of the word ‘amateur’ is the Latin word for ‘love,’ and I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the roles I have played.”
In addition to thoroughly enjoying his years in the Thoroughbred sport, Mellon, an inaugural Pillars of the Turf inductee into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, found great success that belied his self-professed “amateur” label. Racing under his Rokeby Stable banner, Mellon campaigned four North American champions and the great Mill Reef overseas and earned two Eclipse Awards as the nation’s outstanding breeder. He is the only individual ever to own a winner of the Kentucky Derby, Epsom Derby, and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Mellon, who died in 1999 at age 91, also was a noted philanthropist. The sum total of his contributions during his lifetime is estimated to be more than $600 million, and in his will he left more than $450 million to various institutions and causes.
“He was the ultimate sportsman in terms of how he managed his stable – breeding top horses, and breeding for the best, and running internationally, and so forth,” said Hall of Fame Nominating Committee Chairman Edward Bowen, who guided the Pillars of the Turf selection committee. “The other element is his tremendous philanthropy – not just the giving of his money, but being a guide.”
Born in Pittsburgh on June 11, 1907, Paul Mellon was the second child, and only son, of Andrew W. Mellon, who served as U.S. secretary of the Treasury under three presidents. Paul Mellon’s parents divorced when he was 5, and under the terms of the settlement, the children spent summers with their mother in England, where Mellon developed a lifelong love of British culture.
Mellon attended the Choate School in Wallingford, Conn., and graduated from Yale University in 1929. With his father serving as a U.S. ambassador in England, Mellon also headed overseas to attend Clare College at Cambridge University. There, Mellon, already an accomplished rider, discovered foxhunting.
Mellon was co-heir to the fortune of Mellon Bank, founded by his grandfather. Upon his return to Pittsburgh, he began an internship at the bank in order to please his father. During this time, Andrew Mellon also arranged for his son to work for several other companies in which his family held interests, including Gulf Oil Corp. and the Pittsburgh Coal Co., to broaden his business education.
But Paul Mellon had no desire to be a career businessman. In 1936, Mellon approached his father, who was in failing health, to express his desire to follow a different path and live in the country. Somewhat surprisingly, Andrew Mellon acquiesced.
After stepping back from the family business, Paul Mellon made his home at Rokeby, a farm near Upperville, Va., that he acquired from his mother. It was during this time that Mellon’s passion for horses began to fully flower, as he rode foxhunters and acquired his first racehorse, the steeplechaser Drinmore Lad.
Although Andrew and Paul Mellon did not share business aspirations, the two did share a love of art and philanthropy. The elder Mellon provided funds for the construction of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, along with his art collection. Paul Mellon later provided funds for the construction of another wing of the gallery and would donate many works to it over the years.
Following World War II, Mellon turned his focus to building a broodmare band at 400-acre Rokeby, which would eventually expand to encompass more than 4,000 acres. His first classic winner came in 1964, as Quadrangle, trained by Elliott Burch, captured the Belmont and Travers.
Five years later, Blue Grass Stakes winner Arts and Letters finished second to Majestic Prince in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but turned the tables in the final leg of the Triple Crown to become Rokeby’s second Belmont winner. The son of Ribot added the Metropolitan Handicap, Travers, Jim Dandy, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Woodward to earn honors as Horse of the Year, champion handicap horse, and champion 3-year-old male.
Another of Mellon’s best was Fort Marcy, champion grass horse in 1967 and 1970. The Amerigo gelding also took honors as Horse of the Year and champion older male in 1970, when he won the Washington D.C. International, United Nations, and Man o’ War Stakes.
Mellon, a writer throughout his college years, wrote a poem in the persona of Fort Marcy in accepting the honors for the first campaign:
It will spur me to new fields to conquer
And sharpen my search for renown
And with Elliott Burch as my tutor
You can bet that I won't let you down.
Fort Marcy’s half-brother Key to the Mint, by Graustark, would become the champion 3-year-old colt of 1972.
Rokeby also found success internationally, led by the brilliant Mill Reef, who captured 12 of 14 starts and was never worse than second. Under trainer Ian Balding, the son of Never Bend was a champion in England and France in 1971, when he captured the Epsom Derby and the Arc de Triomphe, becoming the first American-bred horse to win the latter.
Mellon’s other international successes included German and Italian champion Gold and Ivory, by Key to the Mint, and Italian and German champion Glint of Gold, by Mill Reef.
“Paul Mellon was as good [an ambassador for U.S. racing] as you could be,” Bowen said. “He fell in love with racing in Newmarket, and he was forever loyal. He wrote eloquently about how much he loved Newmarket.”
Mackenzie Miller took over the Rokeby string in 1976 and conditioned many top-level runners for the operation. In 1984, the homebred Fit to Fight completed a rare sweep of New York’s handicap triple – the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn. Another standout for Mellon and Miller in that decade was Java Gold, who earned almost $2 million while winning the 1987 Travers, Whitney, and Marlboro Cup.
However, the operation also had its share of disappointments with talented but fragile young horses. Eastern Echo won all three starts as a juvenile, including the Futurity, before retirement. Red Ransom won both his starts at 2, setting a track record at Saratoga, and finished second in his 3-year-old debut. But injury sent the son of Roberto to the sidelines as well; he would go on to become an internationally prominent stallion.
“Mr. Mellon was so generous to Mack and was sort of the ultimate old-style owner who hired his trainer and then turned it over to his trainer and let his trainer make the decisions,” Bowen said.
“I happened to have an interview scheduled with him in his Washington office, and when I got there at 10 in the morning, he had just found out that Red Ransom had broken down. And Mr. Mellon said, ‘You know, I feel so sorry for Mack Miller. I’m sorry about it, too, but this is worse for him.’ And it really struck me that his first thought was how much tougher this was on his trainer than on himself. It really struck me as the element of a very generous nature, and he was very appreciative of what people did for him.”
In June 1992, Mellon turned 85 and decided to begin whittling down his stock. The following month, he sent a memo to Rokeby employees announcing plans for a dispersal of breeding stock to focus on racing on a reduced scale. Mellon sold select yearlings at the 1992 Keeneland September sale, select horses of racing age at Belmont Park that November, and breeding stock at the Keeneland November sale. The latter dispersal proved a blockbuster when 32 mares sold for a total of $6,294,600.
When the dust settled, Mellon was left with 26 horses in training with Miller, including Champagne Stakes winner Sea Hero. Despite managing just one third in three prep starts the following spring, the Polish Navy colt became Rokeby’s fourth Kentucky Derby starter. Mellon, recovering from pneumonia, took a private jet from Virginia to Louisville, Ky., on race day. Just hours later, Sea Hero rolled by 2 1/2 lengths to reward the trip, giving Mellon, 85, and Miller, 71, their first Derby win.
Sea Hero finished fifth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont but went on to win the Travers at Saratoga, where his statue now stands in the paddock. Upon receipt of a $1 million bonus for Sea Hero’s performance in the Triple Crown series, Mellon donated the money to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.
Mellon continued to disperse his stock in the following years, with a 1995 dispersal at Belmont Park the final duty overseen by Miller before his retirement.
Mellon died at his home in Virginia on Feb. 1, 1999. His philanthropy continued after his death, as he bequeathed millions of dollars to Thoroughbred retirement and aftercare efforts – a mark of his continued devotion to the breed, displayed in a poem addressed to the Thoroughbred Club of America years before:
The day my final race is run
And, win or lose, the sinking sun
Tells me it’s time to quit the track
And gracefully hang up my tack,
I’ll thank the Lord the life I’ve led
Was always near a Thoroughbred.
Date of birth: June 11, 1907
Date of death: Feb. 1, 1999
Racing and breeding operation: Rokeby Stables in Virginia
Achievements: Raced four North American champions and European Horse of the Year Mill Reef; voted Eclipse Award as outstanding owner-breeder in 1971 and as outstanding breeder in 1986; received Eclipse Award of Merit in 1993; only individual to win the Kentucky Derby, Epsom Derby, and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe; trustee of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and one of only six individuals to be named an Exemplar of Racing by the Museum; inducted into the English Jockey Club Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1999; served as vice chairman of The Jockey Club, director of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, and held key leadership and support roles with the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and the National Steeplechase Association; donated and bequeathed millions of dollars to support equine research and Thoroughbred aftercare programs
Best horses bred and/or raced: American Way, Arts and Letters, Fit to Fight, Fort Marcy, Glint of Gold, Gold and Ivory, Java Gold, Key to the Mint, Mill Reef, Quadrangle, Run the Gantlet, Sea Hero
Also noteworthy: Graduated from Yale in 1929; received an honors B.A. from Clare College at Cambridge University in 1931; went to work for Mellon Bank, founded by his grandfather, Thomas, and later passed to his father, Andrew; later joined the U.S. Army, serving in the Office of Strategic Services in Europe, where he attained the rank of major and earned four Bronze Stars; donated many priceless works of art to various museums, including the Yale Center for British Art, which he paid to have built; a noteworthy philanthropist, he received many distinguished honors, including the Yale Medal in 1953, the National Medal of Arts in 1985, and the National Medal of Arts and Humanities in 1997