By E.S. “Bud” Lamoreaux III
When Bob Feller, the Iowa farm boy with the blazing fastball, and Mack Miller, the Kentucky trainer of champion thoroughbreds, died within days of each other recently, their obituaries mentioned that both were Hall of Famers with lives that were “interrupted by military service.” That's what the World War II generation did to show its love of country. Feller gave up a lucrative major league contract to serve four years as a Navy gun chief in the Pacific, Miller dropped out of college to join the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Bob Feller broke in with the Cleveland Indians when he was 17. He was driven to perfection — three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters — by a father who built a diamond complete with grandstand for his son on their farm in Van Meter and played catch with young Bob in their barn during the long Iowa winters. Feller once told me, “My father gave me the greatest gift of all. He gave me time.” I interviewed both men for the CBS News broadcast “Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt.”
Feller was considered the greatest fastball pitcher of his time, maybe ever. And he rarely missed a chance to tell you that. Mack Miller, on the other hand, was a soft-spoken Kentuckian from the town of Versailles. His father, who managed the local Greyhound garage, introduced his son to horses by running a small breeding operation on the side. After military service, Mack showed up at Calumet Farm in Lexington, and according to the New York Times, “offered to work for nothing. I was that anxious to get started.”
He then took out a trainer's license, opened a public stable, and nearly “starved to death.” But success followed and he became the private trainer for industrialist Charles W. Engelhard and later the arts patron Paul Mellon. Unlike Feller who won 20 games when he was 20 years old, Miller's greatest achievement, winning the Kentucky Derby, would have to wait until he reached age 71.
Anyone who knows anything about racing surely remembers the picture of the two teary-eyed horsemen, Mack Miller and the 85-year-old Mellon of the Pittsburgh Mellons, watching their 3-year-old, Sea Hero, come roaring down the stretch to victory in the 1993 Kentucky Derby. Sea Hero went off as a 12-1 longshot and as Mack later said, “I'd never thought I'd win a Derby. My time was running out.”
But horse racing is a funny game. Mack, the gentleman trainer, thought he had his certain Derby horse a few years earlier with another Mellon colt. And that's when the real character of the man shone through.
In the winter of 1989, Paul Mellon had a promising crop of 2-year-olds to send to Miller. One of them he named Red Ransom, from O Henry's classic short story, the Ransom of Red Chief. He was a strapping chestnut, with all the right breeding lines — speed from his sire, the European champion Roberto, endurance from his grandfather, the Belmont champion Damascus. “He did everything right,” Miller told me, “he was a good student and when the gate opened, he always left there running.”
That summer, Mack took Red Ransom to Saratoga and the Mellon colt electrified the racing public with two superb victories, one breaking a track record for 2-year-olds. Now, at age 68 Miller had a legitimate Derby horse, an early-line favorite. “He's got the one essential thing a horse has to have and that's speed. I'm a Kentuckian,” he said, “I'm supposed to want to do this. I've run in one Derby and it's a terrible thing to go through, the pressure. I was younger then and more nervous than I am now.”
But a leg injury that fall kept Red Ransom off the racetrack and in the winter of 1990 Mack, who was kind of old-fashioned, kind of cautious with his charges, took the colt to Gulfstream Park in Florida to belatedly start his run to the Derby. Right away, he was the star of the early morning workouts, feeding the frenzy of those who thought this was their Derby horse. With two months to go before Louisville, Red Ransom, the mystery horse, finally made it back to the track, finishing second in a prep race. “This has affected me mentally more than any race I've had recently,” Miller told me, “the media does get into you and they had elected him to the Hall of Fame prematurely, I think.”
Five days later, after another five-star morning workout, he looked poised to do what no other thoroughbred had ever done, win the Derby in his fourth start. But then Red Ransom came up lame again. And his racing career was suddenly over. Even the gentle handling of Mack Miller couldn't get Red Ransom to the starting gate in Louisville. Mack fought back the tears. “I've had other disappointments in my life, so you kind of get hardened to it. But the first few days, it hurts like the dickens.” Racing has lost a true gentleman, MacKenzie Miller, the courtly Kentuckian.
Bud Lamoreaux is former executive producer of CBS News “Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt” and winner of four Eclipse Awards.
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