Mill Reef was owned and bred in the United States of America at the Rokeby Stables in Virginia of his owner and breeder the philanthropist Paul Mellon. He was a son of Never Bend out of the mare Milan Mill by Princequillo. As a yearling it was thought that his action better suited him to a career on the turf courses in Europe rather than the dirt tracks in America and so he was sent to England in December 1969 to be trained by Paul Mellon's young English trainer Ian Balding at Kingsclere. He was ridden by Geoff Lewis in all his fourteen races. Mellon named the horse after the Mill Reef Club, which is situated on the island of Antigua in the West Indies. The Mellon family has maintained a home at Mill Reef since its founding in 1947.
As a yearling Mill Reef showed himself to be an exceptional talent. Once, whilst visiting the stables and watching the yearlings being put through their paces on the Kingsclere gallops, the noted former amateur jockey and journalist Lord Oaksey asked, "Who's that?" to which Balding replied, "That is Mill Reef!" and he went on to prove himself to be an outstanding two year old in 1970.
Mill Reef made his debut in May in the Salisbury Stakes at Salisbury, where he beat the previous winner, and 2-9 favourite, the Lester Piggott ridden Fireside Chat, by four lengths. He then went to Royal Ascot winning the Coventry Stakes by six lengths and the decision was taken go to France for the Prix Robert Papin at Maisons-Laffitte. After an arduous journey he tasted defeat for the first time by the narrowest of margins, to another exceptional English two year old, My Swallow. Back on home soil he was entered in the Gimcrack Stakes at York in mid August but, after a torrential overnight downpour turned the going into a quagmire, his trainer wanted to scratch him from the race. However, after discussions with his owner prior to the race, Paul Mellon said, "let him run, I've a feeling it will be alright". Mill Reef put up a dazzling display scampering over the heavy ground to win as he liked by ten lengths from Green God (who was to be crowned champion sprinter the following year). A below par display in his next race, where he beat the filly Hecla by a length in the Imperial Stakes at Sandown, was followed in his final race of the season when he easily won the prestigious Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket by four lengths. In a crop of outstanding two year olds Mill Reef was rated 1lb below his French conqueror My Swallow, who went on to remain unbeaten in 7 races including all of France's top two year old races, and 1lb ahead of the unbeaten Middle Park Stakes winner Brigadier Gerard.
As a three year old, following a facile victory in the Greenham Stakes at Newbury, Mill Reef was beaten three lengths in the 2,000 Guineas by Brigadier Gerard who was to prove himself arquably the greatest miler ever, with his old rival My Swallow back in third. Although his breeding hinted otherwise, Mill Reef then proved himself to be the outstanding middle distance racehorse of the year, easily winning the Epsom Derby by two lengths from Linden Tree, the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown beating the crack French colt Caro by four lengths and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot by six lengths from the Derby Italiano winner Ortis. In October he completed an extraordinary year when he was victorious in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in France beating the star French filly Pistol Packer by three lengths.
Kept in training as a four year old Mill Reef looked better than ever when returning to Longchamp to win the Prix Ganay in April 1972 by ten lengths (though photographs of the finish make it closer to twelve lengths). A summer rematch with Brigadier Gerard, who had also been kept in training as a four year old, was earmarked for the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown. But after a narrow win in the Coronation Cup at Epsom Downs, by a neck from Homeric, he was found to be suffering from a heavy virus and the rematch had to be postponed.
Fully recovered Mill Reef was being trained for an Autumn campaign and a return to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in October when tragedy struck during a routine gallop where he stumbled and shattered his foreleg. After a painstaking operation he was saved and, though his racing career was over, he became a stallion at The National Stud in Newmarket.
Mill Reef was given a rating of 141 by Timeform, the 6th highest rating ever given for three year olds and above.
He, unlike his contemporary and rival Brigadier Gerard, was equally good on all types of going and, moreover, was the better sire. In a hugely successful stud career his offspring included the winners in 1978 of both the Derby, Shirley Heights, the French Derby (Prix du Jockey Club), Acamas and the 1987 Derby winner Reference Point.
Mill Reef died in 1986 and he is buried within the National Stud where a statue stands in his memory.
The Mill Reef Stakes at Newbury is named in his honour.
The following is inscribed on the plinth beneath his statue at the National Stud:
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.
From Paul Mellon's speech at the Gimcrack Dinner 1970.
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