MacKenzie Todd Miller exemplified all that is good and noble about horse racing.
Miller passed away on Dec. 10 at age 89, leaving Martha, his wife of 59 years, two children and two grandchildren. A native of Versailles, Ky., Miller's career as a trainer of thoroughbreds had him on the move, but many of his fondest moments were spent while "wintering" in his beloved Aiken.
After serving in World War II, Miller determined that college was not for him and found a job mucking stalls at Calumet Farm. Fired because he shook a shank at some yearlings, Miller left with the announcement that he was going to be a horse trainer, and the rest is history.
Apprenticed to Kirtley Cleveland, Miller worked his way up rapidly and took out his trainer's license in 1949. Helped by a number of locals who had a filly they wanted to retain for breeding, this "old country boy," as Miller enjoyed calling himself, was winning stakes races in no time. One such success was Leallah, owned by Charlton Clay. Miller conditioned the horse to the 2-year-old filly championship in 1956.
Later, as contract trainer for Charles Engelhard Jr., Miller developed grass champions Assagai and Hawaii, as well as a number of other outstanding racers. After Engelhard's death in 1971, Miller reopened a public stable and overcame the roguish Snow Knight's extreme aversion to the starting gate, winning a grass championship with him.
In 1977, Elliot Burch, trainer for Paul Mellon's Rokeby Stable, fell ill and could no longer perform his duties, so Mellon offered the job to Miller. A partnership was formed that lasted almost two decades, ending when both retired from racing in December 1995.
Miller's time with Rokeby had many high points, but for the native Kentuckian, none surpassed the upset victory of Sea Hero in the 1993 Kentucky Derby. An inconsistent sort, Sea Hero had flashed his potential the year before with an impressive victory in the Champagne Stakes, but had performed dismally in two starts in Florida in the early winter.
Thinking that perhaps Sea Hero was no fonder of Florida than his trainer, Miller brought the colt to Aiken where he blossomed. Sent to Keeneland, the Rokeby color-bearer had a troubled trip in the Blue Grass Stakes, finishing fourth. On the Churchill Downs backstretch with his dappled coat shining, Sea Hero looked like a horse about to run the race of his life. And he did.
That Derby turned out as if it was meant to be. Jockey Jerry Bailey referred to his trip as "like the Red Sea parting" whenever Sea Hero approached what could have become a traffic jam. The colt reached the wire with more than two lengths to spare, touching off a wild celebration in the Mellon box, with Miller hugging everyone in sight.
Trying to put in perspective what a Derby victory would mean to him in the days before it was accomplished, Miller acknowledged that to win would be the epitome of all a trainer works to achieve. Then, he minimized his part in the equation, simply saying, "I'd love for Mr. Mellon to win it."
In many ways, this attitude was Mack Miller in a nutshell. He was a hard man to compliment, always directing the focus to others. The humility was sincere, for Miller was a man without pretension. He was short on show and long on substance, and that's the way his friends remember him.
Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, who rode Java Gold and other significant stakes horses for Miller, recalled, "I had great respect for the man and I would address him as 'Mr. Miller.' He would respond, 'It's Mack.' I just could never get to where I could call him 'Mack.' "
Ed Bowen, president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, Inc. and former editor of The Blood-Horse , remembers the day Miller was installed in the Hall of Fame section of the National Museum of Racing.
"He was very humble in victory," Bowen said. "All he would say on that memorable occasion was, 'It must be amateur day.' "
Bowen attended the memorial service last week at the Versailles Presbyterian Church, where Miller had been baptized and married, and said, "It sounds like a cliché, but everything about him was so superb, the sameness of what is being said about him serves, in and of itself, as a tribute."
Cot Campbell remembered Miller as a great companion and one of great kindness.
"He reeked of integrity," Campbell reminisced. "If Mack gave an opinion, people paid attention, because they knew the man to be dependable."
Campbell credits Miller as being one of the first to encourage him in establishing the partnership approach to owning race horses.
"Mack listened to the idea and he liked it," Campbell remembered. "He was very supportive and it was certainly helpful having someone of Mack's stature lending his approval to what we were trying to do."
In an interview in August 2003, Miller discussed a number of subjects, among them his appreciation of Aiken.
"It was the best spot I've ever seen for a race horse." Miller remarked. "The track was good. It was demanding. When my horses left Aiken in mid-April to go to New York, they were the best looking horses I ever saw. I say that very modestly. But it was just that we could train them, get the hair shed out of them and they just looked very good."
While Miller wondered at the cordiality he received from the upper crust of racing's aristocracy, the reasons were quite simple. They admired his skill and they appreciated that he spoke their language, not the jargon of the backstretch. And the language he spoke was forthright; the advice he gave was uniformly worthy of consideration. They saw him as being like them and that made them comfortable. Country boy or not, he was a gentleman's gentleman.
Mack Miller was a great man. He did what he chose to do extraordinarily well, with an abundance of grace and humility. Everyone privileged to know him was the better for the acquaintance.