Famous horses: The Mill Reef story

MILL Reef didn’t look like a champion. He was small: “diminutive” was the usual description. He was also unlucky because he was foaled in the same year as another equine great in Brigadier Gerard. But he was totally brilliant, especially when upped in distance. This Saturday sees the 41st running of the Mill Reef Stakes at Newbury in honour of one of the best middle distance horses of all time. So what better time to pay homage to the magnificent Mill Reef…

Mill Reef was bred in the USA by philanthropist and veteran owner Paul Mellon at his Rokeby Stables in Virginia. His sire was Never Bend and his dam Milan Mill, who, in turn, was by the legendary US sire Princequillo. Mellon, who had named the horse after the Mill Reef Club in Antigua, thought he would be best suited to racing on turf rather than the Stateside dirt tracks, so he sent him to his fledgling young trainer Ian Balding at Kingsclere in the UK.

Mill Reef with a young Ian Balding.

It wasn’t long before Mill Reef was impressing at home and he was confidently expected to make a winning debut at Salisbury in May 1970. He hosed up, beating a 2/9 shot ridden by Lester Piggott by four lengths. He then turned the Coventry at Royal Ascot into a procession, winning by six lengths. But after a difficult trip to France for the Prix Robert Papin, he suffered his first defeat (there was only to be one more) going down by a whisker to another exceptional horse in My Swallow.

But the moment that Mill Reef stamped himself as a classic winner in waiting and an equine freak of nature came in the Gimcrack Stakes at York. The Knavesmire was more like a quagmire after torrential downpours and Mill Reef was almost withdrawn. But Mellon was keen to run him and the decision was spectacularly justified when the little horse pulverised the opposition by scampering through the boggy ground to win by 10 lengths.

You can relive that Gimcrack performance by clicking here

Mill Reef went on to win the Imperial Stakes at Kempton and then easily collect the Dewhurst at Newmarket by four lengths.

This was a golden era for flat racing and there were some wonderful thoroughbreds. In the same year that Mill Reef had emerged as a brilliant two year old, the three-year-old Nijinsky had completed the Triple Crown in facile fashion. And then there were the other two year olds of 1970, including the aforementioned My Swallow and Brigadier Gerard.

Through the winter of 1970 and early 1971 all the hype was about the potential clash of Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard, and it happened in the 2,000 Guineas in May 1971. Mill Reef had easily won the Greenham at Newbury, while the Brigadier did not have a prep race. Here Mill Reef met his match over a mile: in fact, in a remarkable career the Brigadier went on to establish himself as arguably the best miler of all time. He only ever lost once and that was over 1m 2f. Mill Reef was three lengths adrift but had run a cracking Derby trial.

At Epsom, ridden as he was in all his races by Geoff Lewis, Mill Reef hardly had to break sweat to beat Linden Tree by two lengths. There was no Brigadier in the field (connections had opted to stick to a mile in the St James’s Palace at Royal Ascot) but Mill Reef could not have done any more. However what he did next over the summer of 1971 was establish himself as one of the best middle distance horses of a generation. He won the Eclipse at Sandown, beating French champion Caro by four lengths, and then cruised home in the King George at Ascot. Lewis later claimed Mill Reef had not even been at his best on Derby Day and that his Eclipse victory had thus far been the horse’s best performance.

But Mill Reef’s finest moment was yet to come. He was prepared for the Arc although there was concern at Kingsclere that he had already endured a hard season (he had been on the go since the Greenham) and Longchamp could be one race too many. There was also the fear of travelling to France as he had endured a torrid journey across the Channel as a two year old in the Papin.

Mill Reef had a decent rest after the King George and about a fortnight before Longchamp had a crucial racecourse gallop at Newbury. He was brilliant and finished miles ahead of his galloping companions. Word about “that” very public gallop clearly got out and he was backed in to 7-10 favourite on Arc day.

His 17 rivals included Pistol Packer and Cambrizzia, first and second in the French Oaks, Irish Derby winner Irish Ball and Caro. But turning into the straight, things didn’t look good for Mill Reef. He had a wall of horses in front of him and plenty to do. He was in a similar position to See The Stars before that mighty horse burst through a gap on the rails in 2009. But Lewis knew his horse, and knew he had plenty left in the tank. But would the gaps come? It was even hard to spot Mill Reef due to his small stature. But then his trademark sheepskin noseband started to poke through. The split came between Ortis and Hallez, and Lewis went for it. He gave Mill Reef a tap and within seconds he was through and in the clear. Pistol Packer chased him but only got to his tail. Mill Reef had flown and his place in the history books was safe. Nothing could have lived with him in those final two furlongs.

You can relive his brilliant Arc victory here

Mill Reef was kept in training as a four year old and the racing world dreamed of a possible rematch with Brigadier Gerard. Mill Reef sauntered home in the Prix Ganay in April 1972, winning by 10 lengths. The rematch with the Brigadier was set to take place in the Eclipse but after scrambling home in the Coronation Cup at Epsom, Mill Reef was found to have a virus and the rematch was put on ice.

After recovering, Mill Reef was being primed for an autumn campaign and a return to the Arc when disaster struck during a gallop. He stumbled and shattered his foreleg, and only great veterinary skill managed to save his life. But his racing career was over and he went to stand at the National Stud at Newmarket.

In a remarkable stud career he sired two Epsom Derby winners in Shirley Heights (1978) and Reference Point (1986) and French Derby victor Acamas (1978). Mill Reef passed away in 1986.

The following extract is from a speech given by Mellon in 1970 at the Gimcrack dinner. It is inscribed on the plinth beneath his statue at the National Stud:

Swift as a bird I flew down many a course.
Princes, Lords, Commoners all sang my praise.
In victory or defeat I played my part.
Remember me, all men who love the Horse,
If hearts and spirits flag in after days;
Though small, I gave my all. I gave my heart.

What were your memories of Mill Reef? Please feel free to leave your comments.

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