The long-nosed, cigar-smoking, champagne-loving Irishman turned out early one bitter morning last winter to supervise the training of his trotters at his private track at Chamant, 25 miles northeast of Paris. He wore heavy boots, heavy green corduroy trousers, a sheepskin coat and a battered old felt hat. A polyglot assortment of grooms—French, African, Arab—busied themselves about the horses. A slim, intense, hell-for-leather German named Hans Sasse, the assistant trainer, flicked a whip impatiently against the ground. Soon horses were jogging easily around the three-quarter-mile track.
Charlie Mills studied each intently as it passed. "Doucement" he called to one handler, "take it easy." As another horse came by he muttered, "He wants to pace, not trot. They always send the difficult ones to me. As you know, the best horse I ever had was the mare Gelinotte. There hasn't been a better trotter in Europe since the war, and when I say that I include Jamin. A wonderful mare, every child knew her name, but very nervous, very difficult to train. I find that the hard ones are often the best ones, though. At 4, 5 and 6, every year was a great one for Gelinotte. I won the Prix d'Amérique with her twice and the other classic races at Vincennes also twice."
Mills's renown in Europe, all of whose classic races he has won at one time or another, is such that the press actually refers to him as The Coachman of the Gods, and among European harness horsemen he has undisputed eminence and singularity.
"He is," says the gifted Belgian horseman Roger Vercruysse, "the best."
May 12, 1963
"He has the big class and the big experience," says the dashing Frenchman Jean Riaud, whom American fans remember as the winner of Roosevelt Raceway's 1959 International Trot with the artichoke-happy superhorse, Jamin.
Mills, the Irishman who has never lived in Ireland, has enjoyed 74 adventurous and highly agreeable years while becoming the most successful trainer and driver of trotting horses in history. He won his first race in Berlin, at the age of 15, in 1903. When he brought his records up to date recently, amid the antique furnishings, trophies and art objects of his French country house, he estimated he had driven the winners in no fewer than 4,800 races, not to mention heaven knows how many winners he had trained but not driven.
While U.S. records, unfortunately, are incomplete, trotting historians are certain that no American reinsman has even approached Mills's achievement of nearly 5,000 victories. To be sure, Mills has not yet trotted into European poetry, as the 19th century American trainer Budd Doble has into ours ("Budd Doble, whose catarrhal name/So fills the nasal trump of fame," wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes). But he has not suffered noticeably from that omission. French railbirds, clutching their two-franc-note slips at Paris' Vincennes racetrack, where Mills does most of his driving these days, pay him homage no poet could afford by driving the odds way down whenever he performs. And, as he has for several decades, Mills lives in a style undreamed of by the rougher, readier American horsemen, including such well-to-do individuals as Del Miller, Johnny Simpson, Joe O'Brien and Billy Haughton.
Mills counts the day wretched if he does not consume numerous glasses of champagne and smoke a dozen or so cigars (specially made and bearing his own likeness on the label). He was nettled when the Russians, gathering World War II spoils in 1947, hastened his departure from a castle he used to occupy in Germany and appropriated his string of 100 well-bred trotters. It is typical of Mills, however, that he was able to conceal and save his racy Alfa Romeo touring car (although the Russians seized a beloved, supercharged 130-mph American Auburn roadster) and that he was able to lend it for post-V-E-day transportation in Berlin for Winston Churchill.
"It was," Mills says nostalgically, "the best car left in town."
It is also typical of the man that he survived the havoc of Russian occupation so splendidly that he now inhabits a princely dwelling in Chamant. Mills positively did not have to go to a soup kitchen for nourishment, as many refugees did, when he arrived in Paris from Germany in 1947. As a French newspaper reported, he went straight to the deluxe Hotel Crillon.
He is not, he says, absolutely certain whether his place in Chamant contains 28 or 32 rooms, but he is sure that two extensive wings of the house embrace 68 horse stalls and that on his 250 acres of land the two training tracks measure three-quarters of a mile and 1,000 meters, respectively.
Mills started collecting celebrities years ago—or, rather, they him. When he turned 50 the German crown prince, son of Kaiser Bill and a trotting buff, sent him a photograph inscribed with a personal message of congratulations. ("That would mean nothing today," says Mills, "but in those days even a handshake would have been worth 100,000 marks to some people.") Recently Mills entertained the German actor Curt Jurgens and the French star Jean Gabin in quick succession. Elvire Popesco, a queen of the Paris legitimate stage, would not think of placing her trotters with any other trainer. When Mills married for the second time, three years ago, the ceremony was performed by no less a personage than Baron Alain Rothschild of the extraordinary banking family; the baron also happens to be the mayor of Chamant. As a trinket of his esteem, the wealthy Argentine cattle breeder, Jorge de Atucha, for whom Mills trains horses, recently sent him an overcoat lined with lush, dark mink.
Unquestionably, Mills delights in his fame, his celebrated friends and his ability to indulge a few expensive tastes, but these are not his true goals and satisfactions. The real Charlie Mills is a tough, albeit amiable, Irishman, the passion of whose life is the light harness horse. It is not a good idea to wonder aloud in his presence how much longer he can take the slambang action of harness driving. That subject is all the more tender just now because, during Europe's recent unprecedented cold wave, Mills quit driving in races and has not yet resumed.
"It would break my heart," he said then, "if I thought I would never drive again. I'll admit that I have considered retiring altogether. I came close to buying a house on the C√¥te d'Azur, a house to retire to. But then I thought, 'What would I do?' I would soon die if I quit working, I'm sure of it. In three months I would be so bored I would not fit in my skin anymore."
After his morning chores on the training track were finished, Mills turned to smile at some winter-shaggy Shetland stallions bucking stiff-legged in a nearby paddock. "I keep them just to look at," he said. "Here, see this." Mills walked to a stall, opened the top door and revealed 30 or so tiny, varicolored Sicilian goats milling about inside. "I keep them just to look at, like the ponies," he said.
A grizzled old Irish setter named Voyou ("Guttersnipe") nuzzled against Mills's leg. "Well, come on, Voyou," he said, "let's go inside." Mills entered his magnificent ch√¢teau, built around the turn of the century for the Menier family, world-famous for its chocolates, by way of the kitchen, an enormous, cluttered, comfortable room. "This is where my wife and I usually take our meals," he said. "We aren't pretentious here. We have only two servants, and they just come in during the day." He walked on, through a trophy room resplendent with silver but containing only a fraction of his lifetime collection (much remained in the German castle), to a small sitting room. He pointed to a Toulouse-Lautrec ceramic of the music hall star Yvette Guilbert ("One of two in the world") and to two Toulouse-Lautrec oils with horse themes. "Once I had 26 Dutch masters, but I have sold them," he said, sitting down in one of the room's elegant old chairs. Madame Mills came in. A former private secretary to Marcel Boussac, the French textile magnate and Thoroughbred horseman, she is fortyish and a handsome woman. With her came her pedigreed silver poodle Abu. "There is nothing here," she said, "that is not true and genuine. You know, Charles could have lived without working on what he had when he came to France, but like a rather cheap person. That is not his style."
It was 11 in the morning, and Charlie Mills was ready for some champagne. A 1955 Louis Roederer brut was served. It was excellent.
"When I was in my teens and beginning to make a little money driving," said Mills, "my father would give me champagne now and then. He had been a trainer of show horses in Ireland. On a trip through Germany to Russia he saw trotting and fell in love with it. He went back to Germany—Berlin—and became a trotting trainer, and that's where I was born. Father always had to work hard. He had a big family and never made much money. But he managed to live well enough. He liked champagne. He liked oysters. He told me, 'If you drink, drink the best.' I have drunk champagne all my life."
Mills sipped his Louis Roederer. He looked up at his wife and smiled. "She trapped me," he said, "like a spider in a net." "The things you say," she said. "It was not that way at all. We first met by chance in a railway station in Basel. There had been an announcement that the train would be delayed one hour, and I could see that Charles had not understood. He was standing there looking at nothing with those big blue eyes. We had lunch together in the buffet. I believe in the old formula: a lady does not see for a second time someone she has met by chance. But when Charles wants something, he is implacable. He telephoned me five times—the last time on my private wire at Boussac's. Well, we were married three years ago."
Mills puffed contentedly on his cigar and took another sip of champagne. "I was in Germany during both wars," he said. "In the first, because I held a British passport—Ireland wasn't free then, of course—I was put in a concentration camp for 18 months. The camp was a trotting track in Berlin where I had raced many times, and we lived in the horse boxes, six to a stall. It was not very pleasant, but not too bad. When I was released after the Armistice I went to Austria. As I recall, I won 600 races in Austria and Hungary in the next five and a half years.
"I used to go to America every year to buy horses. I bought one of my greatest ones, Walter Dear, the winner of The Hambletonian, from Bill Cane, who was a friend of mine. Walter Dear won the Prix d'Amérique in 1934 and afterward was the leading sire of Europe. A very dark brown horse, gaited like a machine. In 1930 I won 20 races with a wonderful American-bred, Sam Williams. He became a great sire, too.
"Racing never stopped in Germany during the second war in spite of all the devastation. I drove right on through it. By then I had my castle near Berlin, two farms and about 100 horses in training. Then the Russians came in. By 1947 I had salvaged all I could, and I got out. I still own the castle; I hear my furniture is still there, but I don't think I'll go back to check." (Probably because he held himself aloof from the politics of that period and because horsemen seem to constitute a worldwide fraternity that ignores national borders, Mills was welcomed in France despite his wartime residence in Germany.)
Followed loyally by Voyou, Mills went out to direct the training of his prize trotter, a mare named Pinochle, who he says is "the finest 4-year-old in France." She is owned by an American living in Paris, Edward Gaskell, southern European manager for the United States Lines and one of Mills's patrons.
"I think Charlie is the best trainer in the world," says Gaskell. "He has great knowledge and great patience. He doesn't put a horse on the track until the horse is ready to race. He knows all about all the little things, too. At shoeing, for instance, he is simply a wizard. The first time he ever drove Pinochle the crowd made her the favorite. That tells you how the public feels about Charlie Mills."
"I do not think," said Mills, paying vigilant attention to Pinochle's workout, "that it is a very good trainer who knows exactly how fast a horse can go. I always try to save something. I try never to use the last ounce of speed.
"And somehow I have never considered it work, this business of trotting. It has always been great pleasure and fun for me. Am I right, Voyou? Yes, great pleasure, and great fun."