Mill Reef


Ellen Parker

If a racing fan were asked to name the greatest Virginia-bred of all time, he would in all probability very quickly name Meadow Stud’s Secretariat.  Yet we might beg to differ with that choice.

While it is a good argument that Secretariat is the greatest American-raced Virginia-bred of all time, Paul Mellon’s Mill Reef was a horse for the ages.  That he is not as well known to Americans is their loss – and in many cases their fault – for his story is as near as a history book and as lyrical as the video tape of his career called “Something To Brighten The Morning”.

Mill Reef touched those who knew him and those who merely watched from a distance.  Should anyone doubt the impact he made on the life of his owner, he might do well to remember that when Paul Mellon won his first Kentucky Derby with Sea Hero, he reminded reporters that he had previously won the Epsom Derby and the Arc – with Mill Reef.

Americans turned their backs on Mill Reef as a sire, which is a shame because so many of his better get ended up in Japan.  His best son in Europe, Shirley Heights, is still alive and his best son, Darshaan, is as well.  But when American breeders showed no interest in the magnificent Kotashaan (FR) they were forgetting that he was Never Bend male line via Mill Reef and that his awe-inspiring speed when rounding turns did not come from the less familiar names in his pedigree.  Rather Never Bend and *Gallant Man (via Elocutionist, his broodmare sire) were at work in Kotashaan, as surely as were Hardicanute and Abdos, Nijinsky II and Val de Loir.

Tony Morris wrote of Mill Reef that he was a horse “the public took to its heart; he stirred imaginations with his displays of class and courage on the racecourse.”  His class was determined in a racing career in which he did almost nothing wrong.  In a 14 race career spanning two years plus two starts at four, Mill Reef won 12 of 14 races.  And he always competed against the best.

Among the horses he defeated were Caro, Pistol Packer, My Swallow, Welsh Pageant and Irish Ball, all champions and/or classic winners.

The two horses who beat him – My Swallow in the Prix Robert Papin – and Brigadier Gerard in the Two Thousand Guineas – are among the best ever to run in Europe.  My Swallow won all seven of his starts at two, including the French “Quadruple Crown”, while Brigadier Gerard won 17 of his 18 starts.

Mill Reef’s victories included the Coventry, Gimcrack, Imperial and Dewhurst Stakes at two; the Greenham S. (GR 3); Derby Stakes (GR 1); Eclipse S. (GR 1), King George VI & Queen Elizabeth S. (GR 1) and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (GR 1) at three and the Prix Ganay and Coronation Cup (both Group 1) at four before he was nearly felled for good by a fractured foreleg suffered in a gallop at Kingsclere where he was training.

For a time, it did not appear that Mill Reef’s chances for survival were very good, but an operation to insert screws into his foreleg was successful.  One reason Mill Reef survived where so many others have not was his intelligence.  Trainer Ian Balding, curious as to how Mill Reef was able to get up and down without injuring himself, decided to spy on the great horse one day.

Oblivious to Balding’s peeking, Mill Reef leaned his body against a wall of hay bales set up to absorb any damage he might do himself, then with some of the weight off his feet, he would carefully slide himself down.  Having figured out such a complex way to rest is far beyond the intelligence normally attributed to any equine, but we are talking about Mill Reef here, no ordinary horse.

During his long recuperation Mill Reef received hundreds of get-well cards and when he left Kingsclere to go to stud the streets were lined with fans and well-wishers.  They were happy on two scores:  their hero was well again, and Paul Mellon had announced that he would stay in England for stud duty.

The love and respect which Mill Reef earned as a racehorse translates to that intangible ‘something’ that all great athletes possess, whether their names are Joe Montana or Barry Bonds.  There is a photo of Mill Reef in a volume called “Champions” – a head shot in which he is looking right into the camera.  His forelock is blowing in the breeze, his nostrils are dilated and his eyes have that dreamy look reserved for places beyond the horizon that only the great ones glimpse. It is that rare photograph which captures the intangible quality of true greatness.

As a stallion, Mill Reef was as good as he was as a racehorse.  Among his best offspring were the following classic winners:  Acamas (French Derby); Shirley Heights (English & Irish Derbies); Fairy Footsteps (One Thousand Guineas); Glint Of Gold (Italian Derby); Wassl (Irish Two Thousand Guineas); Doyoun (Two Thousand Guineas) and Reference Point (English Derby).

Champions not listed above include Ibn Bey (second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic); Lashkari (winner of the first Breeders’ Cup Turf); Diamond Shoal; and Entitled.  He sired 63 stakes winners in all, and 44 more horses who were stakes placed.

As a broodmare sire, he has been equally adept, his daughters having produced 80 black type earners.  Among the best of these are champion two year old Mujtahid; Prime Glade; Winter Quarters; Mill Native (winner of the Arlington Million in the U.S.); Pentire; Last Tycoon (winner of the Breeders’ Cup Mile); and Astronef.

Thus despite a limited presence in the U.S., Mill Reef has been responsible for a Breeders’ Cup winner (Lashkari); a daughter who has produced another Breeders’ Cup winner (Last Tycoon); a grandson who sired a Breeders’ Cup winner (Kotashaan); a son who ran second in the Breeders’ Cup (Ibn Bey) and a daughter who produced an Arlington Million winner (Mill Native).  So one does have to scratch his head and wonder why it is that Americans never went after a major winner by Mill Reef to stand at stud.

We learned a long time ago that a horse is best known by his quotations, i.e. the notable comments regarding his character, racing career or place in history.  Here are a few example of notable quotes concerning Mill Reef:

Jockey Geoff Lewis to trainer Ian Balding:   “This is the best horse you’ve ever had and the best you ever will have. He’ll go by them so fast at Epsom they’ll catch pneumonia.”

Former Thoroughbred Record Editor Timothy Capps:   “Joe Palmer once wrote ‘The only horse lover is another horse’.  Palmer, the finest of turf writers, was rarely wrong.  But then, he never knew Mill Reef.”

Bloodlines columnist Leon Rasmussen upon the death of Mill Reef:   “Bloodlines would like to write a few words to honor the memory of who he believes to have been the finest race horse he ever saw in living competition, and one of the finest sires he ever had the privilege to write about….”

Blood Horse Editor Kent Hollingsworth:  “Mill Reef had a different style (than the other North American bred English Derby winners).  His races were not marked by sudden acceleration, just with relentless, increasing power.”

Peter O’Sullevan, B.B.C. commentator, calling the 1971 Arc home to England, knowing in his heart that the gallant little horse was trapped and would probably not find room in time, then realizing that the moment had come:  “……and Goeff Lewis diving for the inside — spot the sheepskin noseband — as Mill Reef is through.”

There were bound to be comparisons to Mill Reef when Lammtarra won the 1995 Arc de Triomphe. He became only the second horse, after Mill Reef, to complete the Derby, King George and Arc treble.  But unlike Mill Reef, he did not win anything else.  And few average race fans were glued to the television to see Lammtarra, or to hear the stirring words that “Lammtarra is through…..”

Lammtarra was no Mill Reef.  He did not belong to an American, either, so there wasn’t as much American interest in the horse and when Lammtarra was quickly sold to Japan for stud duty after just four lifetime races, the interest really waned.

Perhaps Patrick Robinson said it best of Mill Reef when he wrote that all those associated with the horse were prisoners of his greatness.  Paul Mellon may have been glad to win a Kentucky Derby, but having had a Mill Reef, a horse like Sea Hero is bound to fail the comparison.

Others of us not so closely associated are also prisoners of Mill Reef’s greatness.  We have yet to see a European who excites us as much as he did, with the possible exception of User Friendly.  Naturally there is a connection between his powerhouse of a filly and Mill Reef.  Her sire, Slip Anchor, forges one link in an unusual chain, much like the Reigh Count-Count Fleet-Count Turf and Ponder-Pensive-Needles chains of American Derby winners.  Slip Anchor’s chain is to the Epsom Derby.  Not only did he win the great race, but so did his sire, Shirley Heights, as of course did Shirley Heights’ sire, Mill Reef, the subject of this story.

Mill Reef was destroyed on Feb. 1, 1986 at the National Stud after a heart condition diagnosed the previous July had worsened.  He was 18 years old and we would like to have had him longer.

Now what is left are some wonderful memories and the handful of grandchildren and great grandchildren we happen upon in the occasional grass race here and there.  The Breeders’ Cup will have been run by the time this issue of PEDLINES is out, but Mill Reef’s grandson Mark of Esteem is one of the favorites in the Mile and our heart will be with him. And if he should win, there is a strong possibility we will be moved to take out our copy of “Something To Brighten The Morning” and remember the little dark bay American who daisy-cut his way to the dizzying heights of world champion, all the while, listening to something in his heart that was distinctly rich and rare and sending it back home to those of us who were the more-than-willing recipients of the glory.

Ellen Parker’s Mill Reef article originally appeared in Pedlines #12, November 1996