Mill Reef remembered – 50 years on from Derby success

Mill Reef standing with Ian Balding in the build-up to the Derby
Mill Reef standing with Ian Balding in the build-up to the Derby (PA Archive)
14:00pm, Thu 03 Jun 2021
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Mill Reef was described as the “most perfect specimen of a small horse” by his trainer Ian Balding – and he developed into a giant of thoroughbred racing.

Standing 15.2 as a two-year-old in 1970, Mill Reef went on not only to land the Epsom Derby the following season but won a host of other major races too, including the Coral-Eclipse, King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Such were his achievements that he is immortalised with a life-size statue at Park House Stables at Kingsclere.

The small but exquisite colt, with a mahogany coat, came to occupy a special place in the hearts of the public as he drew on his courage to win his greatest battle when, at the age of four, he suffered a life-threatening injury in a routine gallop at home.

Mill Reef and Geoff Lewis return victorious following the Derby (PA Archive)

The story of Mill Reef, named after a stretch of coastline in the West Indies, began in the United States, where he was bred. It soon transferred across the Atlantic as his owner, the American millionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon, adored the English racing scene.

Under the tutelage of Balding – whose son Andrew has leading claims this year through Chester Vase winner Youth Spirit – the youngster was never less than sensational right from the start, overturning 2-9 favourite Fireside Chat by four lengths on his Salisbury debut before winning the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot by eight lengths.

Although he was beaten a short head by My Swallow in the Prix Robert Papin at Maisons-Laffitte, after a debilitating journey and a bad draw, the chance of redemption arrived in the Gimcrack at York – for which Mellon flew in from the States to watch him for the first time.

Alas, it rained so heavily on the Knavesmire that Balding wanted to withdraw his potential superstar – but the owner assured his trainer everything would be fine. He was right as Mill Reef carried the familiar black and gold colours to a staggering 10-length victory. “He was the best two-year-old I had ever seen,” said the trainer.

Owner Paul Mellon with Mill Reef after the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot (PA Archive)

There were two more victories before that stellar campaign ended, including a four-length success in the Dewhurst at Newmarket.

The three top two-year-olds of 1970, Mill Reef, My Swallow and Brigadier Gerard clashed in the 2000 Guineas, the field for which was one of the finest ever assembled. It was won by the peerless miler Brigadier Gerard, with Mill Reef in second and My Swallow third.

Balding admitted being shocked by the defeat. But jockey Geoff Lewis was convinced the horse would be better over further, despite his pedigree suggesting otherwise.

However, Lewis faced his own race against time to be fit to ride Mill Reef in the Derby after being injured in a fall less than two hours after the 2000 Guineas.

He won his battle and was in the saddle as Mill Reef strode to a smooth three-length victory over Linden Tree at Epsom – and he also rode the winners of the Oaks and Coronation Cup at the same meeting.

When Mill Reef went gloriously into his winter quarters, racing fans were already awaiting the promised showdown of epic proportions between him and Brigadier Gerard in the Coral-Eclipse the following season, but it was not to be.

Mill Reef with Geoff Lewis, pictured at Newbury racecourse (PA Archive)

Mill Reef sauntered to a 10-length victory in the Prix Ganay at Longchamp, but a scrambling success when the virus was on him in the Coronation Cup at Epsom proved his swansong. While being prepared for the Arc on a sunny August morning on Watership Down, a dreadful, audible crack signalled he had broken his near foreleg.

The operation to save him took more than seven hours, after which Mill Reef’s calm temperament and indomitable spirit took over. It was not long before he was able to hobble along with his leg encased in plaster, until finally he could leave Kingsclere for his new career as a stallion where he went on to sire two Derby winners of his own – Shirley Heights (1978) and Reference Point (1987).

Mill Reef still has a race named in his honour at Newbury, where he kicked off his three-year-old campaign with a four-length success in the Greenham Stakes.

The Group Two Mill Reef Stakes over six furlongs, held every September, also had an auspicious beginning under its new name when its first winner in 1972, Mon Fils, went on to win the 2000 Guineas.

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