It is approaching 50 years since Park House Stables at Kingsclere last sent out the winner of the Derby, but there is every chance this unwanted record will be rectified when Kameko runs at Epsom on Saturday.
The Andrew Balding-trained 2000 Guineas winner goes into the Classic as second-favourite and represents the historic Hampshire yard’s best chance of capturing the prize since the success of Mill Reef in 1971.
Kingsclere was built in the 1860s and the Derby is in its bones. John Porter sent out seven winners of the race from there, among them the mighty Ormonde, and Mill Reef was more than just a worthy addition to the roll of honour. He was one of the sport’s all-time greats.
A small but exquisite colt with a mahogany coat, he came to occupy a special place in the hearts of the public as he drew on his courage and fortitude 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’s story began in the United States, where he was bred, but it soon transferred across the Atlantic as his owner, the American millionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon, adored the English racing scene.
Under the tutelage of Andrew Balding’s father Ian, the youngster was never less than sensational right from the start, overturning a 2-9 favourite by four lengths on his Salisbury debut before winning the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot by eight lengths.
Though 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. The owner demurred. “I have a funny feeling everything will be all right,” he said. Mill Reef then 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.
There were two more victories before that stellar campaign ended, including a four-length success in the Dewhurst at Newmarket, and in any other season there would have been no contest when it came to determining the name of the champion two-year-old.
But My Swallow had also enjoyed a mighty season, winning all seven of his races, and he was rated 1lb above Mill Reef, with the unbeaten Brigadier Gerard a further 1lb away.
All three were aimed at the following spring’s 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.
Subsequent events showed Mill Reef to be much better over longer distances, a fact boldly stated in the Derby a month later, when he scored by two lengths, and underlined in a glorious summer with victories by four lengths in the Eclipse and six in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
Finally, he beat the brilliant filly Pistol Packer by three lengths in an exhilarating display in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
The stage was set for a showdown of epic proportions between Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard the following season, but it was not to be.
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 the leg encased in plaster, until finally he could leave Kingsclere for his new career as a stallion.
Mill Reef won 12 of his 14 races, in all of them ridden by Geoff Lewis, and was one of a triumvirate of truly great horses foaled in just over a year. The others were his exact contemporary Brigadier Gerard and the older Nijinsky. Has racing ever been so blessed?