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From Rock Bottom to the Top of the Heap, Millar & Gallucci’s Homebreds Make it a Year to Remember!

Trot Feature: George Millar

George Millar and Nick Gallucci have both had some success during their years in racing, but nothing like what they’ve accomplished together, mainly with Millar’s homebreds, in 2021 - just months after Millar received a double lung transplant with two new lungs that were infected with the COVID-19 virus. By Keith McCalmont.

There’s only one month remaining in what has been a tumultuous year for him - to say the least - but breathing the rarified air of ‘Meet Leading Owner’ in both wins and earnings at Woodbine Mohawk Park is George Millar’s Millar Farms. To tell the truth though, just breathing the air at all is in itself a win for the longtime horseman.

The 71-year-old Millar underwent a double lung transplant at Toronto General Hospital this past February after being diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, but since then he has roared his way to the top of the table with an army of homebreds conditioned by Nick Gallucci.

“It’s been a great year, and to be truthful, I needed it. I spent a lot of time in the hospital,” Millar said. “My wife and my daughters were great to me, but I hated being a burden to them. The racing was something to lift my spirits. Being able to watch these horses race, I was on the couch screaming my brains out. I was able to come to the track three or four times, but I miss coming to the paddock to see the drivers and trainers I’ve known for so long. Hopefully, next year I’ll be able to do that.”

Millar was expected to require two weeks to recover from the double transplant, but the period extended beyond three months after myriad complications left the veteran owner/breeder fighting for his life.

“Not only was my body trying to accept new lungs, but they gave me a set that had COVID,” Millar said. “I was delirious for 4-to-5 weeks and I had a tracheotomy for 6-to-7 weeks. I thought the nurses were trying to kill me. It was terrible.”

Millar spent nine weeks in the intensive care unit and another three weeks at the Toronto Rehabilitation Hospital learning how to walk after losing nearly 40 pounds of muscle mass.

“I couldn’t stand up,” he explained. “I had pulmonary fibrosis and they don’t know how I got it. It wasn’t by smoking or Farmer’s Lung. It was just the luck of the draw. I doubt I would have made it through the spring. There’s no cure.”

While Millar was re-learning to walk, his equine stars were blazing a trail from the paddock to the winner’s circle leading Millar Farms to second position in the OSS breeders standings [58-23-10-5, $1,134,707] just four wins behind Winbak Farm [219-27-25-23, $1,174,095].

Prohibition Legal, a two-year-old daughter of Big Jim went 8-for-9 in a prolific campaign for purse earnings of $564,204, posting a perfect OSS season culminated by a victory over stablemate Silver Label in the $225,000 divisional championship on Super Final Night at Mohawk.

Out of the Jennas Beach Boy mare Catch A Wish, Prohibition Legal suffered her only loss when second to U.S. Horse of the Year hopeful Niki Hill in the Shes A Great Lady final in September at Mohawk.

Silver Label, by Bettors Delight and out of the Real Desire mare Hidden Gem, won 6-of-8 starts with her only losses coming in runner-up efforts to Prohibition Legal. She banked $341,726 without leaving the province either.

Another two-year-old Millar homebred, Betterhavemymoney, made headlines by capturing the Battle of Waterloo in August at Grand River Raceway. The Betterthancheddar gelding banked $335,474 through a record of 10-4-1-2.

Arguably the single best performance from a Millar Farms homebred this season came on North America Cup night however, when Powertrain, a sophomore son of Shadow Play, zipped to a 1:48.2 score in a Three-Year-Old Open, stopping the clock a over second faster than they did in the $1 million feature race later that evening [1:49.3].

Powertrain went unraced as a two-year-old after cutting a tendon on a strand of electric fencing on Millar’s spatial farm property in Stouffville, Ontario.

“I gave him a year-and-a-half off and we brought him back carefully,” Millar recalled. “Nick said before my surgery, ‘This is a really fast colt.’ I’ve heard that before about a few horses, but how well he came back was maybe the highlight.”

Millar has developed his racing families for more than four decades but his current racing crop seems to have inherited their owner’s resiliency as even stable star Prohibition Legal spent time in the hospital and had to overcome adversity.

In August, leading up to a [OSS] Gold at Mohawk, a concerned Gallucci called in his veterinarian with the star filly eventually spending nearly a week at the University of Guelph’s Equine Clinic.

“She was having an off morning,” Gallucci recalled. “She ended up having a displaced colon. They treated her medically and didn’t need surgery which saved her year.

“Leading into that episode, I’d given her a week-and-a-half off and I was going to start jogging her back lightly,” Gallucci continued. “In the end I had to rush into the next stakes race, but she pulled through and was good in the race and got the win.”

The bettors sent Balance to post as the odds-on favorite in the race, due to obvious concerns with Prohibition Legal after dealing with medical issues and nearly one month between starts. Undaunted, the Millar homebred pulled through in style, firing home in :26.1 to win in 1:52.

“She overcame a lot to win that race, which is pretty special,” Gallucci said. “The other filly [Balance] had just come off winning the Whenuwishuponastar series. I wasn’t sure she’d be able to beat that horse and even though she wasn’t 100 percent, she still did it.”

The 34-year-old Gallucci admitted to being in awe of what Prohibition Legal has accomplished in her debut season.

“Hopefully she’s not a once-in-a-lifetime horse, but she kind of feels like it. She just wants to win races,” Gallucci said.

The experienced Millar was far more emphatic about his barn’s impressive campaign.

“In over 40 years of breeding, this is without a doubt the best crop,” Millar said.

* * * *

Millar’s family emigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1957 and he recalls an ideal childhood.

“My parents bought a house in Scarborough [Ontario]. It was such a safe area that you didn’t need to take your keys out of the car in the driveway. It was like Leave It To Beaver growing up,” he said, with a laugh.

His late father, George, Sr., was a bricklayer and his mum worked in a factory. He spent his childhood surrounded by family, a value he continues to hold in high regard.

“My mum had five or six sisters and they all were war brides and married Canadians and moved over here,” Millar said.

Millar enjoyed an athletic childhood, excelling at sports and spending his teenage summers working as a lifeguard.

“I played baseball, hockey, football, basketball… I was a pretty good athlete. Sports was about the only reason I went to school – that and the cheerleaders,” said Millar, with a laugh.

Millar eventually took up work as a salesman but when he proposed to his now wife, Sondra, his life took an unexpected turn for the better.

“She said she didn’t want to marry somebody who was working for somebody else. She said if I started my own business she’d marry me,” Millar said.

‘Hanna Papers’ was founded from this moment of inspiration in 1977 in what is now known as Liberty Village in Toronto. The company has grown to become the largest high grade paper recycling company in North America.

“We started the company and Sondra worked for two years before getting pregnant with Melissa, our first daughter,” Millar said. “In three or four years, I put the company I left out of business and it just kept growing from there. We had plants in Quebec and then I moved to Boston, and before you know it we had five plants in the U.S.”

While the company grew, so did Millar’s lifelong passion for horses.

“When I graduated from university, the first thing I did was buy a riding horse. Before you knew it, I had five or six riding horses,” Millar said.

Eventually, his two passions merged in a business opportunity when Millar was attempting to pique the interest of Jim Fortescue, who ran a bindery operation.

“There was a pig farmer named Frank Wills and he had a grey mare - Pats High Sea – that he was racing on the fair circuit and he asked me if I wanted to buy the horse,” Millar recalled.

Meanwhile, Millar had been stonewalled in multiple attempts to book a meeting with the bindery operator, until Fortescue finally relented.

“When I went into Fortescue’s office there was a big win picture of a standardbred pulling a cart behind his desk. I thought it was just like the horse Frank [Willis] showed me,” said Millar, with a laugh.

Millar quickly spun a tale about an opportunity to buy into Pats High Sea and Fortescue leaped at the opportunity. Wary of leading a potential client into a losing venture, Millar made a deal with Wills for the cost of the cart, harness and horse which totaled $2,500.

“I told Frank that when Jim comes up here, ‘you tell him it was only $1,000 so his cost is $500.’ I didn’t want him to pay too much in case the horse was no good,” Millar said. “The horse ended up being OK and won some races at Barrie Raceway, and he [Fortescue] was up there six days a week jogging the horse.”

The business venture ended up being successful both off and on the track.

“I bred that mare to J Js Primo and her first foal was Misty High [p,1:59f; $96,017]. She was awesome. She was mean and all she could do was win,” Millar said. “Those were the days when fillies and colts would race against each other and I think she even raced against Cam Fella in the Valedictory.

“The stud fee was $750 and we made almost $100,000 with her,” he added. “Eventually, she got claimed off us and we went off from there. Leo Fuller became my first trainer at the farm.”

* * * *

Gallucci succeeded a long line of trainers and private trainers for Millar through the years that included the well-regarded Joe Stutzman and Gregg McNair.

A Toronto native, Gallucci grew up in Brantford and spent his youth following the exploits of a modest group of horses owned by his late grandfather, John Holmes, that raced primarily at Flamboro Downs.

Gallucci eventually worked as a groom for several stables after getting his first real job with Rod Allen, traveling to Florida for a winter when he was just 18-years-old. On his return, he spent a year studying social sciences at McMaster University but soon realized that horses were his passion.

“Once I started going it got into my blood and I couldn’t shake it. Once you get the taste of winning a race it’s hard to shake,” Gallucci said.

Gallucci credits his time working with friend and colleague Ryan Maxwell as helping to launch his training career.

“I was more of a second trainer than a groom there, and I learned a different aspect of how to train horses,” Gallucci said. “I settled in around Mohawk and launched my own stable in 2012.”

Gallucci, who had just one start in 2011 and 71 in 2012, has basically seen his earnings increase each year from $155,840 in 2012 to more than $2.1 million thus far in 2021.

Oddly enough, his first mention on the Standardbred Canada website was a reference to his qualifying for the 2008 TROT National Handicapping Championship. His understanding of how to read race lines has remained tantamount to his current success.

“You only have to look at the past five lines to have an idea if your horse is in the right class to win a race,” Gallucci said. “When I first started training, I was mostly doing claimers and conditioned horses, and you always try to place them where you can win. I never want to look at the odds board and see my horse at high odds.”

He notched his first career win in January 2012 at Flamboro Downs with the pacing mare Tedeschi, a modest daughter of Modern Art.

“I knew all the horses in that class so I’d wait for all the best horses to show up in the entries and then I’d enter her,” Gallucci said, with a laugh. “She wouldn’t be in every week and sometimes she’d miss a week, so we could miss the ones I knew she couldn’t beat. The more research and time you put in, the better you’re going to do.”

Gallucci’s stable of overnight horses grew and he was getting close to 200 starts per season by January 2016 when he was among the first responders at the tragic fire at Classy Lane Stables where 43 horses perished. Gallucci, who was stabled nearby, was the first to notice the fire and alert authorities of the blaze at Barn 1.

“It set me back for a long time, trying to get over what I experienced that night,” Gallucci said. “A lot of people have experienced barn fires, but there’s nothing that can prepare you for that. It was a traumatizing experience for me and I couldn’t get over the pain it caused the people who lost their stables at that time. I felt for the people that lost everything.”

It was a little more than a year later that Millar made overtures to Gallucci about taking over his stable full time, but the hard-working conditioner said he was still focused on owning his own stock at the time.

Gallucci acquiesced in the summer of 2019 and accepted the job, eventually moving onto Millar’s 60-acre training centre property, the sister facility to a 75-acre broodmare and yearling farm just down the road, which is managed by Steve Samis.

“It’s made everything a lot easier for me. I’m really close to the horses now and I can keep a better watch. It’s a lot easier to get things done,” Gallucci said. “It’s a gorgeous facility and second to none that I’ve seen in harness racing. I have a half-mile track that’s well banked. There’s 17 paddocks with run-in sheds and lots of space to turn the horses out. We have around 40 stalls.”

Gallucci said he oversees a staff of 12 on the racing property, who were responsible for up to 15 horses racing at peak times during the summer months.

The young trainer, who is approaching his 400th career win and $7 million in purses, credited Millar and Samis for providing him with talented stock that he feels are worthy of a possible O’Brien Award.

“They come in as yearlings when you start breaking them in September or October and they’re all well prepared,” Gallucci said. “If he [Millar] were to get a breeding award it would be very special to him as George does all the matchings and pedigree work. He puts a lot of effort into that.”

Gallucci is on record that Silver Label might be even more talented than her neighbor and nemesis Prohibition Legal.

“Silver Label is great gaited, very talented and does everything right, but she doesn’t have the same desire - at least this year,” Gallucci said. “She was a little behind Prohibition Legal starting out and didn’t have as many qualifiers or races until later in the year also.”

He characterizes Prohibition Legal as a street fighter, born with an innate desire to survive.

“Prohibition Legal would do everything she can to win a race,” Gallucci said. “She knows what it means to win a race. It’s amazing what they both did this year and hopefully they’ll carry it into next year. They’re both here at the farm and handling turnout really well. They’re getting some weight on them and starting to grow up and get taller.”

While Millar was always convinced Betterhavemymoney was going to be a star, Gallucci admitted to being more than a little skeptical at first.

“When he first came in as a yearling George was very excited about him. I looked at him and thought he looked kind of like a Shetland pony, just a lot taller. He had short legs on him and a big belly,” Gallucci said, with a laugh. “He definitely filled out and got to looking more like a racehorse as got racing. He never did anything wrong at all training down and was always on his toes.”

Gallucci feels that Powertrain might develop into a serious older horse, particularly after his speedy effort on North America Cup night.

“I was going out to warm up another horse and I thought he’d won in :49.2. I didn’t realize until I was out there that it was :48.2 and I nearly fell off the jogger,” smiled Gallucci. “He’s done really well on turnout as well. He’s shown his ability this year and I don’t think it’s out of his league to be competitive at the next level if he builds on this year. He was a green horse this year and it took him a while to come into form.”

Gallucci seems to be coming into form in his own right as he gains a comfort level racing a different class of horse.

“My idea all along was to be progressing. I knew it wouldn’t all come at once,” Gallucci said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the type of horses you have. The big thing I was always looking for was to improve my stock. The last couple of years with George, I’ve got into the stakes horses and we’ve gone down a different road.”

* * * *

While Gallucci’s career is only just on the upswing, Millar has found himself reflecting on more than four decades of success in the sport.

“We had Rectory, who set a track record at Mohawk back in the early 1980s, and then Ball And Chain came along,” Millar recalled of the $1.4 million earner who was the first horse to go sub-1:50 on Canadian soil. “We raced Serious Comfort, who won an O’Brien Award, and Celestine Prophecy was a New York Sire Stakes champion. We’ve had a lot of good horses over the years.”

The early success brought Millar closer to his late father, who passed away in 2013.

“The last 15 to 20 years of my dad’s life, I brought him up to my broodmare farm and he and my mum lived up there,” Millar said. “We went to the track every race and that’s when I really got to know him a lot better. He spent six years in the Royal Navy in the submarines and he saw a lot of shit. He signed up at 16.”

Millar said his father found great comfort and joy late in life through family and horses, in particular their foundation broodmare Little Black Book - the grand dam of Prohibition Legal.

“He loved her. He was there when she won the Gold Cup and Saucer. She was our favourite horse ever,” Millar said.

After all that he has experienced with his health in a hellish year, Millar said he is keen to live every remaining moment to its fullest. He recently passed his nine-month lung evaluation with flying colours.

“I’m back jogging horses so I’m happy with that, but I’m not doing any babies until they’re all bomb proof,” joked Millar. “With these new lungs, the average life span is 10 years. Some people go 14 or 15 years. It makes you want to value every day you have. Just to come home to my family and this beautiful farm and to wake up and appreciate it every day is pretty good.”

Millar and his wife, Sondra, proud parents of Melissa and Ashley, are enjoying life as grandparents and they seem to have adopted Gallucci as one of their own.

As the farm’s stock improves and their numbers grow, Millar said he is encouraging Gallucci to make sure he looks after both business and family with an eye to certain stock that might need to race across the border in the years to come.

“He’s doing a great job and I can’t say enough about the young man,” Millar said. “To have a summer like we had with the horses is awesome, but I also have wonderful grandchildren, great daughters, and a great wife. I’m very fortunate. I’ve been fortunate all my life.”

Ever the optimistic horseman, Millar can’t help but keep one eye on the future.

“It’s great to know that Prohibition Legal and Silver Label will be in my broodmare band down the road,” Millar said. “And it’s great to think that a few years from now we’ll be breaking their babies. That makes me excited.

This feature originally appeared in the December issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.

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