Here's to the Horses

Paul Mellon leads in Mill Reef after the Derby in 1971 | Getty Images


I wish I had met Paul Mellon. He does seem to have been a rather good egg.

Mill Reef was born the year before me and though I wasn't precocious enough to have enjoyed his racing career live, for some reason, since I started taking a serious interest in racing, he has long been one of my favourite horses. I think a lot of it has to do with Mellon himself. 

Can you imagine a modern-day Gimcrack-winning owner writing a poem about his horse, as Mellon did for Mill Reef in 1970? That year was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the horse's success. Six Group 1 wins would follow at three and four, including victory in the two most important races of all: the Derby and the Arc. 

I was thinking of Mill Reef the other morning as I always do on visits to the National Stud. His name plaque is still visible, and the stallion yard is made extra special for having his statue there en route to the paddocks. Its plinth bears plenty of clues as to the kind of man Paul Mellon was. One side states the horse's breeding and achievements and, in a particularly nice touch, credits John Hallum, who looked after Mill Reef when the horse was in training with Ian Balding at Kingsclere, and George Roth, who did the same during his stallion career. Again, I wonder how many other owners would have thought to acknowledge the key people in the horse's life in so permanent a manner. On the other side of the plinth is Mellon's poem from his Gimcrack speech:

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.

Mellon's legacy to racing has more substance than this delightful whimsy. American by birth, the confirmed Anglophile was a significant benefactor to the British Racing School and Royal Veterinary College and, pleasingly, his English racing colours live on through the Kingsclere Racing Club thanks to him having bequeathed them to Ian Balding. So too does the story of Mill Reef through Lord Oaksey's wonderful book and the Albert Finney-narrated film Something to Brighten the Morning. 

Racing and breeding have changed, in some ways for the better, in some ways not. While interviewing Peter Kavanagh of Kildaragh Stud recently this was brought to mind again, as he rued the demise of the owner-breeder. 

Things are different now, and people breed horses differently, too, with much more of a commercial imperative. This is not a bad thing per se, but one can't help but wonder if we are losing some of that pure love for the horse – call it sentimentality if you like – as well as a proper understanding of the traits of families in the process. 

A treasured possession in our house is a collection of four leather-bound scrapbooks compiled by Sir Victor Sassoon and detailing every mention of his Guineas and Derby winner Crepello in newsprint. For obvious reasons, scrapbooking is a dying art, except at Heath House, where, during Christmas week, Sir Mark Prescott will have faithfully consigned his favourite clippings of the year to a new book.

So much is lost, too, in our digital life, as convenient and environmentally friendly though it undoubtedly is. Sure, we can look up most things online (and of course TDN has a handy daily archive stretching back years) to see the results and ratings, and watch the replays over and over. But there is something rather thrilling about being able to read in yellowing, faded newspaper clippings just what Peter Willett or Roger Mortimer or John Hislop or Dare Wigan thought of Crepello at the time, all adding their own informed takes on his pedigree. All that would have been lost to this reader without those scrapbooks.

Hislop, later the owner-breeder of Mill Reef's nemesis Brigadier Gerard, said in the Sporting Life of June 11, 1957, “At no time has our bloodstock been in greater need of a boost, and Crepello's pedigree holds out every hope of his proving a classic sire in the old tradition.” Maybe things haven't changed that much at all.

The two best horses we saw on the racecourse in 2023 are now both safely ensconced in stallion barns: Equinox (Jpn) at Shadai Stallion Station and Ace Impact (Ire) at Haras de Beaumont. We've heard plenty of late about how Japan is running rings around the rest of the breeding world when it comes to producing top horses, but another way in which the country is a global leader for the sport is in its fan engagement.

When speaking to Japanese journalist and broadcaster Naohiro Goda at Tattersalls just after Equinox's retirement from racing had been announced, he mentioned a JRA-planned retirement ceremony, which took place the week before Christmas at Nakayama. “The fans will expect to be able to say goodbye,” he said. Quite right too. 

Let's copy this idea. After all, we had one for Frankie Dettori on Champions' Day and he isn't even retiring. One or two such ceremonies for the truly special horses would be a great way to show our appreciation. Because really, all the sales, the politics, the raceday concerts are just sideshows. Horses in full flight are what draw us all in, whether we are punters, racegoers, breeders, owners, trainers or jockeys: they are the one thing we all have in common.

Though we have this unifying element, even better is that we all love different horses for different reasons, and it's not just the great ones. That, too, when we are breeding Thoroughbreds in their thousands, is an important message that should not go unheard.

Every Christmas we receive a card from a lady who owns one of the former residents of our yard. He's 22 now and he wasn't much cop as a racehorse but he has brought years of fun to his rider on the hunting field in Devon. He's one of many now well into their twenties and proving hugely useful in different spheres.

From a personal perspective, one of the only occasions to have brought proper joy following the death of my father in February was our horse Dereham winning at Newmarket for the second season in a row. It was an inconsequential race in the grand scheme, but to win at our home track with a homebred was special. I don't think the Jockey Club will be planning a retirement ceremony for him, but I might start to lobby for one if he wins that same race for a third time in 2024.

Dereham is plainly no Mill Reef, but he is small, he gives his all and, as horses do for so many of us who love this sport, he has kept me going when spirits have flagged. 

The cyclical nature of racing is such that, no sooner have we rued the retirements than we are looking forward to the next big thing. I am hoping that Big Rock and Auguste Rodin continue to be big things and, as every year, continue to hope for a Triple Crown winner. So come on City Of Troy, let's be having you.

Before that, however, I would like to thank you for reading TDN and wish you a happy, successful and peaceful new year.


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