This week marks 50 years since Mill Reef won the Derby, during a spectacular Classic campaign. Kate Johnson charts the career and astonishing survival of the “little horse with a big heart”
“HE was a life-changer for all of us,” says Emma, wife of trainer Ian Balding. “He was the most perfect horse, small of stature and big of heart, and his owner was one of the finest men you’d ever meet.”
She could only be talking about the record-breaking Mill Reef and his owner and breeder American billionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon. Mill Reef arrived in Britain as a yearling in 1969 from Paul’s Rokeby Estate in Virginia to Ian Balding’s Kingsclere training yard, and lit up Flat racing as a two-, three- and four-year-old, until injury nearly ended his life.
It was love at first sight for his groom, John Hallum, dispatched by Ian to collect the bay colt from the airport. John later recalled: “There was Mill Reef and there were three or four great big giant horses. I saw this little pony covered in paddock scars, and I thought, ‘This will do me,’ and that was it.”
This feature is also available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 3 June 2021
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