MacKenzie 'Mack' Miller

The charm of horse racing lies primarily in the animals that do it—their beauty, grace, power and their degree of class. But there is an undeniable attraction to the colorful human beings that make it happen. The purpose of this blog is to share my stories about some of these characters. My requisites in the selection: I had dealings with them, their antics and accomplishments should not be forgotten, aand that at least most of them are no longer with us. Cot Campbell  

    A contest to determine the most popular man in the history of Thoroughbred racing would surely find Mack Miller's name in the finals. And 2 to 1 to win it! Quite an accomplishment, because, while he was certainly not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he ended up with a mouth full of silver ladle. Because he served as private trainer (and close friend) for two of the richest men in the world, and two of the most appreciative and understanding when it came to the vagaries of racing. They were Charles Engelhard, the platinum king, and then Paul Mellon, the renowned sportsman and philanthropist.

 So, Mack might have had a target on his back. But because he was such a nice guy, and his ability was so respected, no one ever took a shot at him. You never heard him criticized, and that spoke volumes about the man. He reeked of quality. Interesting that he was the one American horse trainer that any other horse trainer would go to for advice and not feel that they had compromised their own expertise. He was what Dr.Larry Bramlage is today in the veterinary field.

   Mack Miller was the quintessence of success and quality in Thoroughbred racing. He was a tall, handsome fellow, great smile, cheery way about him, always nicely turned out in Brooks Brothers garb. Sociable to friends, fans and associates, but around his barn he saw to it that things were popping, and popping in the direction that he wanted. Ask former assistants like Neil Howard, Pete Vestal, Danny Furr, Mike Cline, Jeff Minton and other impressive names.

Mack Miller

Mack Miller

   Sometimes in one's career it seems a matter of supreme importance for some big shot to speak to you and call you by your name. You need to feel that you have arrived, or are about to. Hearing "Hi Cot" from Mack one day was big stuff to me in the mid-seventies. Another time at Saratoga, I was thrilled when he asked me to clock a horse for him.

   Mack came from a small-town, Norman Rockwell-type family. His father was superintendent of motor vehicles in Versailles, Ky. His mother was a saintly lady who sang in the choir at the Presbyterian Church. Mack was fond of proclaiming, "My mother could sing like a bird." That same Presbyterian Church delivered a rousing, standing ovation when Mack and Martha Miller strode down the aisle to the Miller pew on Sunday morning after his Sea Hero had won the Kentucky Derby.

Sea Hero

Sea Hero

   Miller grew up under rigid rules about what was right and wrong, and he played by them all his life. And he did not dig or condone anyone who didn't. He shunned for a time a couple of super popular riders who were suspected of chicanery. He adored Jerry Bailey ("He had the finest countenance, the nicest outlook"), but he fired him when it became apparent that during a period in mid-career Jerry was laying on the sauce a bit strong (Jerry later fixed that problem for good, and Mack got him back).

   Mack Miller's middle name was integrity. He led the league in self deprecation...and hypochondria, by the way. He was truly a world-class, charming companion, but he would regale you with maladies or diseases he was coming down with, or sing the blues about the poor condition of his stock "not a horse in the barn can run a lick."

   Mack's first experience with horse racing was leading broodmares out to pasture at Calumet. He was a lean, lanky six-foot-three, and tipped the scale at all of 130 pounds. He looked like a plucked chicken. So between lack of experience and heft, the mares really dragged Mack to the paddocks. He held on though, gained experience, and before long, through his hometown connections, was able to take a few horses to the race track for some, good-old-boy, "hardboot" breeders in Central Kentucky. He carved out a solid reputation for horsemanship and honesty in the process. Then, by God, he developed a champion (Leallah)! And as horses can do she helped put him in the big time.

   He was offered a delicious draft of horses to train for a new man in the game Charles Engelhard. This big opportunity sputtered off to a dismal start, much to Mack's anguish. Typically, Mack, with the string at Belmont at the time, and embarrassed about their accomplishments, called up Mr. Engelhard, asked if he could come to his home in New Jersey to talk with him. When they met, Mack told his client he was doing such a terrible job that it was only right that he resign. Engelhard, no dummy when it came to judging people, said, "No, you're not going to resign. Instead, you're going to train all my horses. You're my private trainer. You're on the payroll from here on in." Mack gulped, said OK, went back to Belmont, and soon the fog lifted. The stable began to sizzle, one good horse after another.

   Charlie Engelhard died after some years of that association. Mack trained for his widow for awhile, and then the job with Paul Mellon opened up. Mellon had decided to split up with his longtime trainer Elliott Burch. This presented a painful, sensitive situation, as Elliott and Mack were best friends, but Elliott was going, one way or another, so Miller took over one of the most prestigious jobs in racing. And he never looked back. Sea Hero, Fit to Fight, Java Gold, Assagai, Tentam, Halo, and on and on. Dangerous to start naming his big horses, because he trained a gang of them.

   Being an old-time guy with old-time ways, he brought his stock into Aiken, S.C., to winter quarters. So, Mack really had three homes: Versailles, Garden City, N.Y., and Aiken. He wintered in Aiken in a home and considerable acreage given to him by the grateful patron Charlie Engelhard.

   He toiled in Aiken with such racing luminaries as John Gaver, Mike Freeman, Buddy Raines, Frank Wright, Woody Stephens, Angel Penna, Jim Maloney and many others of the same ilk. He adored Aiken. He loved playing golf, which he did almost every afternoon.

   In the heyday of Aiken, the training of racehorses was ruled by the greatly revered, no-nonsense Greentree trainer, John Gaver. Mack Miller became a luminary of unexcelled luster eventually, but was not in the early days. He learned from the Princeton-educated Gaver, was greatly influenced by him, and stood in awe of him. He was anxious not to displease him.

   One winter Mack was training Halo, an outstanding grass horse. Halo, during his racing days and later at stud, was one surly, disagreeable, rough customer. He gave Mack many a gray hair. Halo took great pleasure each day, when sent out in one of the large sets of trainees, in dumping his rider. He would then gallop around the track several times. His exuberance gratified, he would conclude his adventures by crossing Two Notch Road, plowing into the Greentree training complex, where he would attempt to breed each and every horse being cooled out on their walking ring. This intrusion into the Greentree compound was quite disruptive, and annoyingly repetitive, Gaver felt. One day, after such an episode, Gaver ran into Mack down at the clockers' stand and said, "Mack, you're going to have to take care of that son of a bitch! Or I'm going to castrate him! Since Halo became one of the best sires of his days, it is fortunate for the breed that Mack was able to control Halo's unscheduled trips to Greentree.

   Mack Miller was certainly a creature of habit, and his habits did not include late hours. If Kentucky was not scheduled to play basketball on TV, he would organize dinner with pals. This would begin at 6:30 p.m., involved two martinis, and around 8:30 p.m. Mack was looking for the party to break up.

   Mack took enormous pride in cooking cheese straws. Around Dec. 1, the cheese straw program would be heavy on Mack's mind, so there would be an ample supply for all his pals at Christmas. When invited to his house, one had access to cheese straws until you choked. For the drinkers, these were washed down with martinis "mixed to Paul's (Mellon, that is) recipe."

   When he and Paul Mellon retired and the two events were definitely associated Mack and his splendid wife, Martha, moved back to their family roots in Versailles, and he fell into a quiet life on Morgan Street. He would make an occasional foray over to Keeneland for the races or the sales, but not much of that.

   MacKenzie Miller truly "one of the ones."

(Editor's Note: A previous version of this story included De La Rose among the horses Miller trained. The grade I winner was trained by Woody Stevens but bred by Miller in partnership with Dr. and Mrs. R. Smiser West.)

More of Cot Campbell's stories are included, among a host of others, in The Best of Talkin' Horses.  

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