Golden Miller: the five-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner who was the product of parents who never won a race *H&H Plus*

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  • The only horse ever to have won the Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same year, Golden Miller enjoyed a massive public following in the 1930s, says Julian Muscat

    Golden Miller’s origins

    Bay gelding, foaled 1927
    By Goldcourt out of Millers Pride, by Wavelets Pride
    Owner: Miss Dorothy Paget
    Trainers: Basil Briscoe, Owen Anthony
    Breeder: Laurence Geraghty/
    Julius Solomon
    Jockeys: Ted Leader, Billy Stott, Gerry Wilson, Evan Williams

    Golden Miller is the product of parents who never won a race between them. His sire, the unraced Goldcourt, stood at a fee of five guineas while his dam, Millers Pride, was a hunter who graduated to racing under Rules, where she was placed.

    Golden Miller was sold as a yearling for £100, again as a three-year-old for 500gns, again as a four-year-old for £1,000 and once more, together with dual Champion Hurdler Insurance, for a combined £12,000 to Dorothy Paget.

    Horse racing in Britain between the wars was in its pomp. Huge crowds gathered at showcase meetings, where the exploits of horses like Brown Jack had a hypnotic effect on racegoers.

    Brown Jack excelled under both racing codes. To his Champion Hurdle triumph in 1928 he added the Ascot Stakes at Royal Ascot, after which he won the Queen Alexandra Stakes, again at the royal meeting, for six successive years from 1929.

    However, in 1935, the year of his final victory, Brown Jack had a rival for the public’s strongest affections. Having won the Gold Cup at Cheltenham for the fourth consecutive year, Golden Miller embellished his status as the finest steeplechaser of all time after winning the Grand National.

    circa 1935: Race horse Golden Miller outside his stable. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    But that wasn’t all. Golden Miller returned to Cheltenham in 1936 to win the Gold Cup for the fifth time. He would doubtless have claimed a sixth in 1937 but for a snowstorm that prompted the Gold Cup’s abandonment. And in 1938, by now 11 years old, Golden Miller narrowly failed to win the Gold Cup again when he succumbed by two lengths to Morse Code on ground much faster than he cared for.

    Golden Miller’s Gold Cup record is so towering that it’s unlikely to be matched, but his attempts at the Grand National generated greater interest in an era when the Aintree spectacular was the more coveted prize. He made the first of them in 1933, after his second Gold Cup triumph: the headstrong gelding was closing on the leaders in fourth place when he unseated his rider at the Canal Turn.

    Undeterred, Golden Miller lined up again the following year and won by five lengths, breaking the course record by eight seconds into the bargain. To this day, he remains the only horse to have won the Gold Cup and Grand National in the same year.

    Unique among thoroughbred legends, Golden Miller had a public profile to boot. He was as feted as was any footballer of the era, and his exploits in the Gold Cup, which had only been inaugurated over jumps the previous decade, served to establish it as the blue riband of steeplechasing.

    For all that, Golden Miller remains an under-appreciated talent. This was down in large part to his owner, the Honourable Dorothy Paget. Paget was the daughter of Lord Queenborough and his dynastic wife, Pauline Payne Whitney – although she was anything but a genteel lady of aristocratic heritage.

    In her ubiquitous, white-flecked grey overcoat that ran almost to her ankles, the chain-smoking Paget had an intimidating racecourse presence. The fortune she inherited at 21 was too vast to blow in one lifetime but she made a decent fist of it. A man-hater who never married, and convoyed her all-female staff to the races in a fleet of Rolls-Royces, she frequently placed bets of £10,000 (more than £700,000 in today’s values).

    When she wasn’t at the races, Paget slept by day and gambled by night. She took supper at 6.30am before retiring to bed, from where she would rise for breakfast at 7pm.

    Her intransigence in all matters was such that she got through 18 different trainers – many of whom she would ring in the early hours of the morning. At Folkestone one afternoon she publicly berated Fulke Walwyn, who’d saddled five winners for her but came unstuck in the other race on the card.

    Paget’s demeanour was in contrast to John Hay “Jock” Whitney, her New York socialite cousin who would become US ambassador to Britain in 1957. Whitney introduced Paget to jumps racing through the exploits of his Easter Hero, who won consecutive Gold Cups in 1929–30. He was too good a sport to bemoan the fact that Golden Miller would consistently beat the best of his steeplechasers thereafter.

    Miss Dorothy Paget, racehorse owner, leading in Golden Miller after winning the Grand National in 1934

    Miss Dorothy Paget, racehorse owner, leading in Golden Miller after winning the Grand National in 1934

    Golden Miller himself hailed from far less noble roots. He was bought out of a field in Ireland for 500gns by trainer Basil Briscoe on the advice of Captain Dick Farmer, a Northamptonshire dealer.

    Briscoe was extremely disappointed when the horse arrived at his stables. He described him as looking like “a wet bear, with his long coat sticking up in places like a porcupine”.

    Briscoe’s opinion of Golden Miller did not improve once he had him under tack. He complained to Farmer: “I wanted a likely chaser, not a three-year-old cart horse.”

    By now in despair, Briscoe sent the horse hunting, after which his rider reported: “We went through the roots of every fence.”

    Golden Miller could hardly have made a more inauspicious start to his racing career.

    Yet when he returned from a spell on the sidelines with an inflamed tendon, he was suddenly a different horse.

    Briscoe won four races with him in 1931 before the horse’s owner, Phillip Carr, became seriously ill. Enter Paget, who agreed to pay £12,000 for both Golden Miller and Insurance, also owned by Carr.

    It was an astronomical sum but Paget got the better of the deal. Insurance went on to win the Champion Hurdle twice for his new owner. But Briscoe, having pushed hard to effect the sale, was now straddled with Paget and her notorious tantrums.

    “Training horses is child’s play,” he would say, “but it’s a hell of a bloody job trying to train Miss Paget.”

    As for Golden Miller, he won his first Gold Cup as a five-year-old in 1932 on just his sixth start over fences. He raced prominently, and once his rider, Ted Leader, sent him on approaching the final fence it was clear a new star was in the making. Golden Miller galloped away from Inverse to win pretty much as he liked by four lengths.

    His next two Gold Cup triumphs were gained in equally bloodless fashion. In the first he beat Thomond II, owned by Jock Whitney, by 10 lengths before he raced away from Avenger to win by six lengths in 1934.

    For all the Gold Cup’s prestige, the Grand National was the race every owner craved to win above all others. It was even more of an institution than it is today, and with Golden Miller firmly established as the finest chaser in the land, there was considerable excitement when he ventured to Aintree in 1934.

    His Cheltenham exploits lent him an aura of invincibility – and so it proved as Golden Miller left Delaneige in his wake after the pair jumped the final fence upsides. The large crowd was in raptures; here was a horse for the ages. An ecstatic Paget threw an impromptu party at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel for more than 100 guests.

    However, it would be a very different denouement when Paget and her entourage descended on Aintree 12 months later. Golden Miller had just won his fourth Gold Cup after a protracted duel with Thomond II, and the public was besotted. Even with 12st 7lb on his back, what could possibly stop him winning a second Grand National in 1935?

    The nation concurred: Golden Miller was dispatched at 2/1, the shortest-priced favourite in the history of the race, and a huge roar greeted the starter’s release of the 27-strong field. Everything went to plan until Golden Miller approached the 11th fence, which stands five feet tall with a ditch measuring six feet wide in front of it. The obstacle was about as far away from the heaving grandstands as it gets on Aintree’s meandering circuit. Golden Miller hesitated, then turned almost sideways in his effort to clear it, and catapulted Gerry Wilson out of the saddle.

    “One of the most grievous groans ever heard on a racecourse rang its unbelievable news from those in the area,” wrote Aintree historian Reg Green in his book, A Race Apart. “The stunned spectators in the stands stared dumbly at the leaders taking the water jump in front of them, unable to comprehend Golden Miller’s absence from their number.”

    The race had barely run its course before Paget erupted in rage. She confronted Briscoe in full view of spectators in the County Stand, accusing her trainer of overworking Golden Miller, and her jockey, Wilson, of jumping off the horse. Her relationship with Briscoe did not survive; Paget promptly transferred all horses to Owen Anthony’s stable.

    The incident, involving the nation’s favourite horse, cast a shadow over jumps racing. Wilson was adamant Golden Miller did not enjoy jumping the Grand National’s daunting fences – and he was proved right.

    The following year Golden Miller returned to Aintree where, having been brought down at the first, he was remounted before he point-blank refused to jump the same fence at which he’d turned sideways 12 months earlier. And in 1937, on his fourth and final Grand National start, Golden Miller refused again at the very same fence, this time on the second circuit.

    None of which did anything to lower the esteem in which he was held by the public at large. He justified that faith in winning his fifth Gold Cup in 1936, yet the true extent of his popularity was manifest when he returned to Cheltenham in 1938 as an 11-year-old.

    When he came up short by two lengths, the packed galleries were well aware they had witnessed the end of an era. By many accounts, there was barely a dry eye in the house.

    Golden Miller’s best race

    Despite his five Gold Cup triumphs at Cheltenham, Golden Miller was at his best when he won the 1934 Grand National (pictured). He was opposed by 29 runners and carried the welter-burden of 12st 2lb, yet he won by five lengths in a time that shaved more than eight seconds off the course record. He always looked the likely winner, despite ploughing through Becher’s Brook on both circuits.

    An enduring legacy

    8 Mar 2001: A statue of Golden Miller looks out of Cheltenham Racecourse on the day after the annual National Hunt Festival was cancelled due to the current Foot and Mouth outbreak. Mandatory Credit: Julian Herbert/ALLSPORT

    Among many who profited from Golden Miller’s 1934 Grand National victory, Nottinghamshire bricklayer Fred Varney put his £18,000 winnings from his Irish Sweepstakes ticket to lasting use. He used the funds to set up the Golden Miller Coach Company.

    Varney’s coaches were embossed with the logo of a horseshoe with Golden Miller’s head in the middle of it. The company was taken over by Tellings, which merged its business with a rival firm until the Tellings family bought back the company in 2016.

    To this day, the Tellings-Golden Miller logo adorns many of the firm’s 500 coaches dedicated to VIP travel around Britain. There is also a bronze statue of Golden Miller at Cheltenham (pictured) plus a champagne bar bearing his name, and a restaurant at Aintree.

    Who bred ‘the Miller’?

    There are conflicting accounts about who bred the great horse, with most accrediting Laurence Geraghty, grandfather of two-time Gold Cup-winning jockey Barry.

    Golden Miller’s dam, Millers Pride, spent several years at Geraghty’s Pelletstown Stud, in Co Meath. But some maintain that Millers Pride’s owner was actually Julius Solomon, a low-life Dublin loan shark who took the mare as part-payment for an unsettled debt.

    Solomon paid no keep or nomination fees until one of Millers Pride’s foals started winning good races – whereupon he resurfaced to claim her and demand official recognition. However, as the man who housed Millers Pride and arranged her matings every year, Geraghty is morally entitled to the credit.

    Also published in H&H 11 March 2021

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