Missing Mack - By Evan Hammonds

 (Originally published in the December 18, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Evan Hammonds  

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.

26 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Bill Daly

Mack Miller was the gold standard of racing. His work with all of those great horses over the years was a thing of beauty. What a touch he had! Some of the greatest horses to ever grace the American turf blossomed under his tutelage: Assagai, Hawaii, Mr. Leader, Tentam, Java Gold to name some of them. I really believe he was the last of the line of old school one-owner trainers.  You won't see his kind again.  A pity.

13 Dec 2010 4:04 PM
Mark

During my 5 years with NYRA, I had the great pleasure of speaking with Mack many times as he was walking through the tunnel at Belmont Park, on his way to watch one of his horses run. He would often times not say "hello" but "piece". I thought he was saying "peace" and I would respond in kind not realizing that just about every time he greeted me like that, his horse would be on the board, if he didn't win. If he didn't say "piece", he was usually off the board. (Not once did I have the brains or guts to place a wager based on this "inside information").

One of the nicest people I have ever met - anywhere.

Rest In Peace, Mack.

13 Dec 2010 4:19 PM
$bill

a true gentleman and class act

      r.i.p. mack

13 Dec 2010 4:24 PM
MD Reynolds

As a new fan of racing, I thoroughly appreciated getting to know Mack Miller through your piece. I'm delighted to know that such a gentleman was part of the sport's history. This is a wonderful tribute!

13 Dec 2010 4:33 PM
Rachel

I liked Kissin Kris the year Sea Hero won, but you had to love SH...it was a good race against some class horses. I thought Java Gold was such a fun horse to watch run...Mr. Mack was a true gentleman, it's sad to lose the true class of racing.

13 Dec 2010 5:15 PM
Paul Stone

Dear Mr. Hammond:

Thank you for your wonderful article about Mack Miller. My chance meeting with Mr.Miller occurred at the Key Food in Stewart Manor, NY during the Saturday morning after Sea Hero won the Champagne. I accidentally bumped into this tall man and I offered my apology to him. The other fellow, in his southern drawl, also offered his apology. I looked around and noticed that this "fellow" looked like Mack Miller, whereupon, I asked that question. He stated that he was Mack Miller.

I then told him that I was a racing fan and we proceeded to engage in the most pleasant twenty minute conversation of my life. Mack Miller was a great thoroughbred trainer but he was a better man. Mack Miller was a war hero and he made the world a better place. Nobody in Sports history deserved their place in the Hall-of-Fame more than Mackenzie Miller!

13 Dec 2010 7:12 PM
Lisa J. Hall

I can’t begin to explain how much Mr. Miller meant to me, personally and professionally.  I have said on many occasions that he was one of the best people I have ever met.

I usually travel to Lexington, Kentucky 2-3 times a year and I always stop by their home in Versailles for a visit.  Mr. and Mrs. Miller were always gracious hosts and always talked about how much they loved and missed Aiken, SC and remembered fondly the time that he and Mrs. Miller lived here while he trained for Cragwood Stable, Rokeby Stable and Winfields Farm.  

After arriving for what I thought might be an hour visit, it usually turned in to several hours with Mr. Miller reminiscing about the horses he trained.  I always left with books, pictures, race videos, etc. that they were giving to the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum where I am the Supervisor.  

On one trip, before his health declined, he treated me to his very special home made chicken salad.  Sitting in the kitchen eating lunch with him and Mrs. Miller, I remember how down to earth this National Racing Hall of Fame Trainer was and I knew that this was going to be a very special memory for me.  Another great memory was Mr. Miller driving me over to Lane’s End  to visit Pleasant Tap and Fit to Fight and then over to Midway to meet Dr. R. Smiser West.   What a treat and honor to meet the man, whom with Mr. Miller, bred champions Chilukki and De La Rose, along with Kentucky Oaks winner Lite Light and other stakes winners.

He was so supportive of the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and the all the programs held there.  One project that both Mr. and Mrs. Miller assisted me with was the digitizing of all his win photos that spanned a 45 year career.  Those photos, in the near future, will be available for research purposes at the Aiken Racing Hall of Fame.

The last time I saw Mr. Miller was this past June.   He had a wonderful twinkle in his eyes as we talked about Aiken, family and friends.  I am so thankful for that visit and that my last memory of him was his wonderful smile and his great stories.  Even though I am so very sad over his passing and will miss him more than I can express, I feel incredibly lucky and honored to have had his friendship over the years.  

13 Dec 2010 8:34 PM
Johnny

Mack was unbelievable. Lets not forget Hero's Honor and Wild Applause.

I attribute much of Congrats success to Wild Applause.

14 Dec 2010 12:15 AM
Sunny Farm

Mr. Hammonds , What a fine tribute you have written for a great horseman. Men like Mr. Mack Miller are so appreciated. That he always had a smile and kind word,and was kind to his horses makes him "One of the greatest ever" (In addition to his many victories )

I hope he will be celebrated due to his long and happy life he lived and we send sincere condolences to his family and friends.

Mack Miller lives on -in the Hall of Fame & in many peoples hearts.

14 Dec 2010 12:57 AM
stanley marcinkowski

Mack Miller was the one that got me hooked on grass racing and pedigrees in the 1960's when he trained for 'Goldfinger'. My bet on Sea Hero in Derby made it possible to get operation on newborn foal. Mack was my #1 trainer of alltime. He would always answer my questions I would submit to him.

14 Dec 2010 4:24 AM
John McEvoy

Great rememberance of an outstanding horseman and gentleman.Thanks, Evan

14 Dec 2010 8:43 AM
Stanton Salter

My first trip to Saratoga was the 1987 Travers Stakes.  I was 12, and my dad had taken me up there to root on Alysheba, however.  I remember during the week watching one of Java Gold's workouts, and my dad told me that's the horse to beat.  This is a great piece you wrote about Mr. Miller.  I feel lucky to have witnessed one of his great horses win.

14 Dec 2010 9:26 AM
Mackenzie

With anxious trainers jumping at the chance of taking their young stars from maiden win to a stake race in a single jump, I'm reminded that the way Mack Miller trained a thoroughbred is nearly unheard of today. I can remember his simple, most treasured rule - 'be patient and use ALL of your conditions'.

While Paul Mellon gave him the 'guns', Mack Miller had the 'roses'- his hands -on, patient training style that's but all been forgotten.

Maybe, just maybe when the conversation gets around to the fact that 'they don't make 'em the way they used to', we ought not be talkin about the state of the breed but to consider that they certainly don't make trainers to the standard of a Mack Miller any more. Rest in Peace, Mack.

You'll always be remembered as one of the greats.

14 Dec 2010 9:36 AM
J. L. (Buck) Wheat

I met Mr. Mack when I was a teen-ager, and would run into him while seeking nonminations for the Derby,   The year Mr. Mack won the Derby. on Sunday after the Derby around 8 a.m. Mr. Mack came to my office and knocked on the door and said he wanted to stop by and thank me and Churchill Downs for all we had done for him during that week, I was really touched by sincerity.  What a kind  man he was and we shal miss him.  God Bless you Mr. Mack and Heaven is going to get a lot brighter.  

14 Dec 2010 9:52 AM
Griff Marton

One warm weekday at Belmont I saw Winters Tale, Mr Mellon's crack handicap racer, being reintroduced to the paddock and walking ring after coming back from an injury. I was stunned by his appearance. So incredibly muscled out and glowing with good health. He looked like he had been polished with car wax! The very image of a war horse waiting for his knight to ride him into battle. I wonder why he is so rarely remembered as one of Mr Mack's greats.

14 Dec 2010 11:53 AM
nokoram sundar

i  read  that  mr. mellon  won every big race  in europe but  he

had never  won the kentucky and  he said  all the  money  he has

means  nothing but  to win the

kentucky  and  he  finally  won  

it  with  sea  hero  mr. mack  miller  the  trainer he  came

wit a  umbrellar to  lead that  

horse in  i will  never  forget

that  moment great  trainer

god bless

14 Dec 2010 1:12 PM
steve from st louis

Evan: A life well lived leaves behind such great memories from people whose lives were touched in so many different ways. Both Mack Miller and Paul Mellon were meant for each other as greatness finds its own watermark.

Also great to see my old Chicago Daily Racing Form boss, John McEvoy, chime in with his $1.02 worth (he always had so much to offer). Thanks for your insight, Evan. Why do I feel like having an omelette tonight?

14 Dec 2010 4:30 PM
Jan from Aiken

My son and I had come to Aiken to watch sme of Buddy Raines horses work out.  We were at the rail and Mr. Miller came up.  He and Buddy were good friends.  Mack had just retired. Buddy tugged on his jacket and said "Say, isn't that a new coat?"  Mack just grinned and said "Buddy, you just hadn't seen it!!  We had a delightful time and I got pictures of he and Buddy with my son.

14 Dec 2010 6:57 PM
Evan Hammonds

I'm so thankful everyone is coming forward with their own personal stories about Mack. He was that kind of gentleman, he listened to all and very humble about his own accomplishments. We can all learn a valuable lesson from the way he carried himself.

14 Dec 2010 7:48 PM
skyfire

Sea Hero winning the Derby for Mr. Mellon and Mr. Miller was a story that was in a class with the win by Unbridled for Mrs. Genter.  

What a wonderful tribute to Mr. Miller!  Thanks, Evan!

14 Dec 2010 8:21 PM
amy

Mack Miller was a class act in every way.

RIP Mr Miller

14 Dec 2010 10:50 PM
Bob West

When Mack retired, there was a lovely photo on the Final Turn of him walking under the tunnel back to the backstretch at Belmont after saddling his last horse. It was a very poignant, emotional photo and I wish the Blood-Horse had run it. Truly he was one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. Even though I worked with his horses for over half my life, I was always a bit in awe of him and a bit intimidated by him. I guess that is always the case when one is in the presence of greatness. Also, his memorial service was incredibly dignified from the John Barber piece that began the service through the remembrances from his son in law Rev. John Queen, Jerry Baily, and Rev Shawn Barkley. Most funerals sort of blend together. This one I could never forget. Mr. Robert Courtney, one of his last contemporaries, said it best to me yesterday. "They ought to be breeding fewer horses and more Mack Millers."

15 Dec 2010 11:38 AM
Chris Scherf

Mack was a gentleman who makes you feel better for having known him.

15 Dec 2010 12:45 PM
Judy

Wonderful tribute, Evan. Mack Miller was a class act both on and off the track. And a truly kind person.

15 Dec 2010 3:32 PM
Alfred Nuckols, Jr.

I had the very special privilege of growing up and getting to know Mack through my father and uncles, the Nuckols brothers. They all attended the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida along with Mr. Hampton Henton and several others from Woodford County. He was training a filly for Dad, Charlie and Hi by the name of Crock (out of Milk Dipper)and shortly thereafter notified them that he would be taking a private training job for Mr. Charles Engelhard. Little did they know that their loss would become their gain. He purchased Mr. Leader from us as a yearling in 1967 for $110,000, which was the most we had ever sold a yearling for. Under his training, Mr. Leader blossomed into a wonderful racehorse and Mack was a major factor in his returning to Hurstland for his stud career. He literally helped put Hurstland on the map and indirectly has given me some of my most memorable moments on the turf. I bred a son of Mr. Leader by the name of Doc's Leader and I gave a daughter of his to my children, Leigh and Hurst. Her name was Gimmeakissee and she won the the Valley View, the first graded stakes ever for the family at Keeneland in 1999. Since then she has had a filly by the name of Kiss With a Twist who was also a stakes winner and graded stakes placed at Keeneland. So, if Mack had not done what he did with Mr. Leader, I would have missed out on two of the most wonderful experiences of my life. Of course, if you knew Mack, he would never accept any of he credit.

Mack was the consummate gentleman. I have always looked up to him and appreciated his kindness and consideration. The only thing wrong with his memorial service was that he wasn't there to hear how much he had influenced the lives of those who knew him. He touched so many people with his kindness, generosity and his ability to make them feel special. He will be truly missed by all those who had the wonderful privilege of knowing him.

15 Dec 2010 11:35 PM
frank lewkowitz

after reading the wonderful epitaph, it is sad to remember thedays when horse racing was in its glory days and what has now happened to our sport. todays ""supeertrainers" are an embarrasment to the horsemen of prior generations.

16 Dec 2010 8:37 AM

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