A goodbye to Gentleman Mack

| December 16, 2010

As a racing year marked by incredible on-track highlights and continued industry challenges nears its conclusion, somber news has arrived in the passing of Hall of Fame and Kentucky Derby-winning trainer MacKenzie Miller.

The Kentucky-born Miller, known as “Mack” to virtually anyone he ever met, died on Saturday, Dec. 11 at the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center. Miller had been hospitalized since he suffered a stroke on Dec. 5.

It would be extremely difficult for anyone to describe Miller, who had lived in Versailles since his retirement in 1995, without using the phrase “true gentleman.”,  His kind manner stuck all those who met Miller throughout his career, which ended in the company of owner-breeder Paul Mellon, a philanthropist and grand patron of the arts who shared those traits with his trainer.

Great friendship

Their partnership was a beautiful friendship that reached its climax beneath the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs on May 1, 1993, when Mellon’s 3-year-old colt Sea Hero, carrying the gray and gold colors of his Rokeby Stable, won the 119th running of the Kentucky Derby.

The 13-1 Derby upset by Sea Hero presented both Miller and Mellon with their only success in America’s greatest race and emphatically placed a exclamation point on their long and distinguished careers. Sea Hero, a colt who seemed to have no chance to make the “Run for the Roses” when he traveled to Florida after a 2-year-old season highlighted by a win in the prestigious Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. The colt literally withered in the South Florida heat.

He melted!

“He lost a lot of weight, and I asked my assistant what happened to him,” Miller recalled a few years later. “He said, “˜He melted.’”

After a pair of uninspiring races to open his 3-year-old season at Florida’s Gulfstream Park, Miller brought Sea Hero to Keeneland, where he improved with the return to cool weather and ran fourth to Prairie Bayou in the Blue Grass Stakes.

Fatal injury

It was not a step forward – not a huge stride, but a step. And it encouraged Miller to come to Churchill Downs, where Sea Hero had a pair of good works and was entered in the Derby to face favored Prairie Bayou and 17 other rivals.

In the Derby, he was reserved in 13th early before starting his move leaving the backstretch. Jockey Jerry Bailey veered toward the rail and got through along the inside, while Prairie Bayou – who would win the Preakness two weeks later – had to rally very wide under Mike Smith. Sea Hero, a hit-or-miss type throughout his career, was a hit on his biggest day as he drew clear to win by 2 1/2 lengths, while Prairie Bayou got up for runner-up honors.

Popular prize

The Kentucky Derby has always possessed a near magical tendency to reward those with long service to the horse industry. For Miller, then 71, and Mellon, who was 85 on that Kentucky Derby Day, Sea Hero’s win was a most popular prize for two men who had given so much to racing throughout their lives.

For Miller, who spent most of his 46-year training career in New York, the Kentucky Derby win by the Bluegrass State’s native son was the highlight of a career in which he trained more than 70 stakes winners.

Before he joined forces with Mellon in 1977, he trained for industrialist Charles Engelhard and turned out grass champions Assagai and Hawaii and dirt Halo and Mr. Leader. He attempted the Derby only one other time: a fifth-place finish with Jig Time in 1968.

Miller’s soft-spoken excellence was, even in 1993, a seeming throwback to earlier times. He was not made for our era of in-your-face media shout-fests fueled by ESPN Sportscenter, Glenn Beck, Chris Matthews and radio news/sports talk shows. His manner of genteel and he greeted all with a courteous smile and a warm handshake.

I’ll never forget the 1990 Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park in New York, which I covered as a radio reporter. That event was marred by a fatal injury to the wonderful 3-year-old filly Go for Wand, who went down in mid-stretch while battling head-and-head with Bayokoa in the Distaff (now Ladies’ Classic).

The next morning I interviewed Miller, the veteran who had experienced racing’s joys along with its crushing disappointments, outside his Belmont Park barn. He talked of moments like those experienced by those surrounding Go For Wand, and then uttered a phrase regarding life at the track that I’ve repeated a thousand times, always citing its course: “Just when you think nothing else can happen, it always does.”

Mack Miller always handled disappointment with the grace he displayed in victory.

The Derby victory by Miller, Mellon and Sea Hero will always be special to me because it came just before the birth of my daughter, Erin, who is now a senior at Louisville’s Presentation Academy. She was about two weeks overdue and I was a key member of the WHAS Radio Derby team, so much was at stake in regard to Erin’s decision to go ahead and enter the world.

She waited through Derby Day, and finally arrived the following Wednesday.

The 1993 Derby has always been among my favorites because of that circumstance, but also because of Miller and Mellon’s magic moment, even thought the beaten favorite, Prairie Bayou, remains one of my all-time favorite horses.

I’ve always told Erin that had she arrived on Derby Day, I would have insisted that she be named Mack in honor of the great man who won the biggest race of them all that day. I was kidding. A little bit.

Special person

It turns out she carries a middle name that belonged to her grandmother, Dolores, who passed away nearly four years ago. Dolores Asher was a pretty great role model.

But it would not have been a bad thing had Erin somehow been named in honor of MacKenzie “Mack” Miller. If she goes on to become the type of person Mack proved to be during nearly a half-century in racing, she will be a very special young woman.

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