In the lead up to this week’s Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe we spoke to Ian Balding about his memories of Mill Reef’s dazzling triumph at Longchamp on 3 October 1971.
In the summer of 1971 Mill Reef completed a spectacular double winning the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot before the Kingsclere team turned their attentions to the prestigious European middle distance prize across the Channel.
Which of the Eclipse or the King George wins did you consider was his best performance?
It's difficult to say which was better, he broke the course record in the Eclipse beating the top French 4 year old Caro and then won the King George by 6 lengths.
They were both amazing performances.
Were there ever any thoughts of running in the St Leger?
No, not really because for two reasons; we didn’t have a Triple Crown to win having been beaten in the 2000 Guineas. So that was no temptation. Otherwise I think it would have been tempting.
The second thing was that Nijinsky had been beaten in the Arc the previous year and I felt that had possibly been caused by running in the St Leger. He didn’t seem quite at his best in the Arc so I felt a mid-summer break and a racecourse gallop would be the best preparation for Mill Reef.
How was Mill Reef physically after his summer races?
He was fine, in great form.
Mill Reef returned to the gallops at the beginning of September after winning the King George on 24 July.
What special travel arrangements did you make for the trip to Paris?
Mill Reef had not handled his previous French Trip to the Prix Robert Papin in July 1970 where he had starved himself and had been beaten by My Swallow. As a result two weeks ahead of the journey Mill Reef spent a night at Salisbury racecourse in the quiet empty stables to help prepare him for the trip.
We made a very special arrangement. I contacted Mr Mellon and we got permission from the American Embassy to fly from the American base at Greenham Common which was about 4 miles away from us, so we didn’t have far to go. His lead horse Aldie went with him in the plane (A special Boeing Jet) with me and my wife Emma.
Ian fondly remembered the American Sergeant (Hinz) saying “What’s all this fuss about the horse”. Ian response “It might interest you to know we have just insured the horse for £2 million” (At the time the horse’s value was worth more than any of the aeroplanes!)
He literally went white and said that I (Sergeant Hinz) had better get out and check the runway. He was shocked and didn’t realise how important it was. I have never forgotten his expression.
Less than four hours later on Thursday 30 September Mill Reef, thanks to the French authorities, was stabled at their quiet Visitor’s yard at Lamorlaye away from the noise of Longchamp. The horse had a final gallop on Saturday morning before they travelled to the racecourse stables.
Was this the strongest field Mill Reef had faced in his career and were you confident he could become the first English trained horse to win the race since 1948?
It was a pretty strong field. All the best European horses were at Longchamp.
Mill Reef’s principal rival was the top French filly Pistol Packer, the winner of the 1971 French Oaks (Prix De Diane) who after a mid-season break had recently won the Prix Vermeille a well-regarded trial for the famous race. Other significant runners included Caro, Ramsin , the Prix Du Cadran winner, King George runner up Ortis and the Irish Derby winner Irish Ball.
I was fairly confident he was at his best. Geoff came up the inside rail and squeezed through. It was pretty horrifying to watch. Geoff was on the best horse but it was still a brilliant ride.
Once again Mill Reef had set a new course record.
Do you consider this win as his greatest achievement?
Yes because it was the end of a long season. He had started at the Greenham in mid April. The Arc is often won by a fresh horse so the fact we had rested him mid season made a big difference.
Was it always the plan to race as a four year old until his injury?
Yes it was. Mr Mellon was very keen on the idea. In fact Mr Mellon was thinking of running him as a five year old.
THE PRIX DE L’ARC DE TRIOMPHE
1ST Mill Reef I Balding G Lewis
2nd Pistol Packer A Head F Head
3rd Cambrizzia A Weisweiller A Barclay
Distances: 3l, 1 ½ l
Blog by Stephen Wallis, Visitor Services.
Photos courtesy of Pierre Bertrand (Action shot) and Jockeypedia (Geoff Lewis).