(Originally published in the December 18, 2010 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Evan Hammonds
The racing community took a step down in class Dec. 10 with the passing of Mack Miller. Precious few in the industry today can carry themselves with the warmth, charm, and gentlemanly qualities that Mack did for all of his 89 years.
In a word, Mack could best be described as “genuine.”
I wasn’t around in the days when Mack polished Assagai and Hawaii into turf champions for Charles Engelhard Jr. or when he took the reins for Paul Mellon in the late 1970s but was first introduced to Mr. Miller—“Just call me Mack,” he’d say—when he was perhaps at the zenith of his career. It was August 1987 at a dinner party at New York Racing Association’s racing secretary Lenny Hale’s home outside Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Mack had just been inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame, and during Saratoga’s then-four-week meeting had won two of the big Saturday races, the Whitney Handicap and Travers Stakes (both gr. I) with Mellon’s homebred Java Gold. He would also add the following weekend’s Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) with Crusader Sword to cap off the miraculous month.
Although I was intimidated to be rubbing elbows with racing’s elite, Mack and his delightful wife, Martha, couldn’t have been more gracious and engaging that evening. It wasn’t long before we came to realize Mack had known one of my aunts when they were teenagers. Central Kentucky wasn’t that big in those days—and still isn’t.
While living in New York at the time, I went to see many of Mack’s top horses run at Aqueduct and Belmont Park. A vivid memory from the fall of 1987 was when Java Gold beat older horses for a second time in the Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap (gr. I). Nagging injuries kept Mack’s favorite from competing at 4, which was one of the few disappointments in the trainer’s illustrious career.
Mack’s victory in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) with Sea Hero came together like a script to a fairy tale. It seemed things had gone sour in early winter with Sea Hero not performing well at Gulfstream Park, but Mack took him back to his training base in Aiken, S.C., and things began to turn around. Most trainers wouldn’t press forward to Churchill Downs after a fourth-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), but Mack did, and Sea Hero blossomed before his eyes.
Then on Derby day, everything fell remarkably into place. Sea Hero’s best effort at 2 had come over a sloppy track in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont. Lo and behold, what should happen about an hour before post time at Churchill Downs? A nice rain shower to moisten the track.
Years later, when my family and I moved back to Kentucky, we found Mack and Martha at the Versailles Presbyterian Church. As often as they could, they would be there, sitting with family members in the second row. A personal treat on most Sundays was checking in with Mack after the services to get his opinion on the previous day’s stakes races, the state of the industry, and more importantly in the fall, his take on the University of Kentucky’s football games.
It takes an eternal optimist to back the UK football team, one that has suffered through several decades of disappointments and heartache, but Mack was one of the team’s biggest supporters I’ve known.
If you didn’t get caught up with Mack on Sunday morning, you could catch him most Sunday afternoons at the grocery store in Versailles. Mack had the job of preparing dinner at home on Sunday evenings, and the menu was consistent: omelets. You could find Mack pushing the cart, a dozen eggs up front.
Despite Mack’s declining health in the last year, whenever you saw him, his eyes would brighten and he would flash a warm smile. In his final months an aide helped him with the shopping, and sometimes you could find Mack in the car in the parking lot if he was having a rough day. He always had a moment to chat, see how the family was doing, and offer some encouragement.
In today’s cookie-cutter world, Mack always gave everyone his personal touch.