In 1971 a handsome bay bred in the US by Paul Mellon, at his Rokeby Stables in Virginia, would carry his black and gold silks to victory in the Epsom Derby. His name was Mill Reef and he was trained by Ian Balding and ridden in all fourteen of his career races by Geoff Lewis. Mill Reef would go on the win the Eclipse Stakes, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and then the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe to become the Champion horse of Europe that year. Mill Reef was by Never Bend, a headstrong son of Nasrullah who would be a champion at two in the US but did not reach his potential as a three year old, due in large part to his roguish behaviour. The dam of Mill Reef, Milan Mill was a non winner but possessed a strong pedigree as she was by Princequillo out of stakes winner Virginia Water, a daughter of the good stakes producer Red Ray by Hyperion.
Mill Reef did not inherit his sire’s nor grand sire’s headstrong ways as he was said to be a wonderful animal to be in the company of, but he did have a bold and determined demeanour on the track and was always game and honest when racing. He won his first two races as a two year old winning his début in the Salisbury Stakes and then the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot by six lengths. His next race at Maisons-Laffitte would be his first defeat as was beaten by then French top two year old My Swallow in the Prix Robert Papin. He came back to England to win the Gimcrack Stakes by ten lengths over Green God and then finished his solid two year old season winning the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket.
His championship three year season started well enough when he won the Greenham Stakes easily but he then met up with another top three year old in the form of the great miler Brigadier Gerard, who subsequently defeated Mill Reef in the 2000 Guineas. After this race, Mill Reef would not be beaten again, however it must be said that he did not meet Brigadier Gerard again either.
Mill Reef would win the Epsom Derby in a very convincing manner followed by his triumphs in the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the Eclipse Stakes and the Arc, sealing his championship honours.
Mill Reef was kept in training as a four year old and began with a ten length pulverizing of the opposition in the Prix Ganay in April and then a narrow win in the Coronation Cup, after which he was found to be suffering from a virus and was kept out of training, which meant that his highly anticipated rematch with Brigadier Gerard would have to wait until the autumn. In early September during a routine work at his training grounds on the Kingsclere gallops, Mill Reef took a stumble and shattered his foreleg.
With his life in the balance, Mill Reef would have a long, arduous journey to recovery in which his considerable intelligence and patience would be tested. This aspect to his personality along with the great skill of the veterinarians entrusted to save his severely damaged leg would be an important turning point to the future of the breed. The sesamoid bone, which was completely broken along with a two and one-half inch piece of bone displaced from his cannon, gave the vets headed by Dr. Charles Allen, specially flown in for the diagnosis, a very complicated set of procedures to save the horse’s life.
Ian Balding was insistent that Mill Reef was to be kept as immobile as possible, so an on-site operation theatre was set up in a building at Balding’s training yard, where a six hour operation that would involve the insertion of a stainless steel compression plate held by three screws to pin the broken pieces of the cannon bone was used as well as the setting of his shattered sesamoid. The operation was a success and was followed by a lengthy three months of care and convalescence. Along with his on site handlers, led by John Hallum, there would be a display of the utmost in human/equine co-operation and genuine affection while Mill Reef’s leg heeled.
Paul Mellon was determined to keep Mill Reef in England for stud duty once it was apparent that the horse would survive his brush with death. In late January of 1973, the staff at Kingsclere gathered to say good-bye to their beloved champion as he was deemed fit enough for travel to the National Stud in Newmarket, where Mill Reef was to have a very successful career as a sire. The decision by Mellon to stand Mill Reef in England has had an everlasting effect. This decision also paved the way for other well bred and highly anticipated young sires to stand in England, Ireland and France after they would be retired from the races, and not be whisked away for larger syndication prices for stud duty elsewhere.
Mill Reef would establish himself as a sire of classic winners and then as a sire of lasting influence through his sons and daughters. Acamas would win the Prix du Jockey Club and the Prix Lupin; Behera won the Prix Saint Alary; Creator took the Prix Ganay and the Prix d’Ispahan; Diamond Shoal scored in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud; Ibn Bey won G1 stakes races in Ireland, France, Germany and Italy: Lashkari won the inaugural Breeder’s Cup Turf; Milligram, winner of the Coronation Stakes and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes are just the tip of the iceberg of G1 winners sired by Mill Reef.
Shirley Heights, from the second crop by Mill Reef, was a double Derby winner having taken the Epsom and Irish Derbies in 1978. He would also add the Dante Stakes and the Royal Lodge Stakes to his six career victories. Retired to the Royal Stud at Sandringham, Norfolk with a lifetime racing record of 11-6-3-1, Shirley Heights would become one of the best sons of Mill Reef at stud. Here he would sire Slip Anchor (Epsom Derby); Infamy (Canadian International); High Estate (Coventry Stakes, Royal Lodge Stake etc); Shady Heights (International Stakes); Valley of Gold (Italian Oaks); and Darshaan (Prix du Jockey Club defeating Sadler’s Wells and Rainbow Quest) among his best.
Darshaan would be a prime source of Mill Reef blood to future generations of top class Thoroughbreds. He would sire Yorkshire Oaks winners Key Change and Hellenic; Mutamam (Canadian International); Cerulean Sky (Prix Saint-Alary); Kotashaan (Breeder’s Cup Turf, San Juan Capistrano etc); 2003 European Horse of the Year Dalakhani (Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Prix du Jockey Club etc); and Mark Of Esteem (2000 Guineas, Queen Elizabeth II Stakes etc). The latter two would be the key links to Mill Reef on this branch of the male line as they would both be successful sires.
Dalakhani by Darshaan would sire Conduit, a champion in both Great Britain and the US (King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, St. Leger Stakes, Breeder’s Cup Turf twice etc); Reliable Man (Prix du Jockey Club); Irish champion Chinese White (Pretty Polly Stakes); Moonstone (Irish Oaks); and Duncan (Irish St. Leger Stakes) so far in his sire career.
Mark Of Esteem by Darshaan sired 2006 Epsom Derby winner Sir Percy, who is a current shuttle sire between Lanwades Stud, Newmarket and Rich Hill Stud in the Waikato Basin area, New Zealand. Sir Percy is off to a promising start to his stud career as he is the sire of a high percentage of winners from runners from his first few crops including graded stakes winners Sir Andrew and Alla Speranza. Mark Of Esteem has also sired group winners High Accolade, Ordinance Row and Reverence but has unfortunately been retired from stud duty at the age of fourteen, due to a loss in fertility after colic surgery.
The Mill Reef influence would also be passed on by his son Doyoun. Winner of the 2000 Guineas and the Craven Stakes in 1988 for his breeder and owner the Aga Khan IV, Doyoun would stand stud in Ireland at the Aga’s Gilltown and Ballymany Studs until 1998 when he was sold to Turkish interests. After he left for Turkey his sons Daylami and Kalanisi would each raid the Breeder’s Cup Turf in the US and win in consecutive years, both horses were trained in Europe, while Irish bred Manndar would win the Manhattan Handicap and the Turf Classic Stakes when exported to the US. Attempts to re-acquire Doyoun were unsuccessful and he stayed in Turkey until his passing in 2002 from cancer.
Returning to Mill Reef, he would sire many other stakes winners such as; Irish champion three year old Entitled; Fairy Footsteps (1000 Guineas); King Of Clubs (G1 Premio Emilio Turati); Marooned (G1 Sydney Cup); from the Queen’s great mare Highclere came Milford (Princess Of Wales Stakes); Pas De Seul (Prix de La Foret); and a full brother of Diamond Shoal bred by Paul Mellon named Glint Of Gold, winner of the Prix de Saint-Cloud, the Grosser Preis von Baden, the Europa Preis, the Derby Italiano, the Grand Prix de Paris, and the Gran Criterium, all G1 races.
Mill Reef was loved by all who knew him but perhaps none more so than his proud breeder/owner Paul Mellon. Mellon commissioned three life sized bronze statues to be made in the horse’s honour, one of which is at the National Stud in Newmarket where he stood his entire stud career, one at Kingsclere where had lived during his racing career and one at Rokeby Farm where he was born. Mill Reef was not a large horse standing 15.3 hands, but was of perfect proportion and had a rich bay coat. He had a smooth and balanced action with quick acceleration when in motion.
When Thoroughbred enthusiast get together to discuss who was the best they had ever seen, Mill Reef’s name would inevitably be mentioned. He is held on the same level of esteem as Nijinsky, his contemporary Brigadier Gerard, Sea Bird, Ribot, and many other such luminaries of the European turf. In July of 1985, Mill Reef underwent a heart operation but, as he was steadily declining the vets came to the conclusion that his condition would never improve, only worsen, and so he was humanly euthanized on February 2, 1988. He was eighteen. The following year he would posthumously lead the sire list in Great Britain, his second such title.
Mill Reef was an amazing individual.