“Noble in Character, Worthy in Deed” is the epitaph for Merrick, one of the twentieth century’s best-known race horses. I think it also applies to his owner, my great-great uncle, James Calvin Milam.
J. C. (Cal) Milam was a noted thoroughbred breeder, owner, and trainer in Lexington, Kentucky. Uncle Cal’s heyday coincided with the burgeoning age of horse racing in the US—the first forty years of the twentieth century. Everyone in the business knew everyone in the business then, as now.
Although he died long before I was born, and no one in racing today knows me from Adam and I don’t know them, I am named after Uncle Cal, as was my father. What I do know are a few family stories. Mostly, along with family pictures, I have several spectacular framed race finish photographs carefully inscribed with race, location, date, winning time, and jockey from an era when being a really good judge of horse flesh was a great thing. It’s an honor to have them, and they’re headed for a museum.
HE WAS A GOOD MAN
Uncle Cal was the oldest boy among thirteen children born in Sheffield, Alabama, nine of whom survived infancy. As an eighteen-year-old, he visited Lexington, Kentucky, discovered the world of thoroughbred horse racing, and found his true calling, promptly moving there to learn the business. Over time, he would embody much of what we think about the South: that Southern gentlemen were, in fact, gentle men; how so many Southerners pulled themselves up by their bootstraps following the Civil War; and how tradition is built and reinforced over time. In his case, time measured in furlongs and breeding seasons.
In 1901 his brother John Gordon Milam had recently married and was expecting his first child when he died suddenly. His wife, Emma, bore my father’s mother, Gordon Ellen Milam. She was always known as Gordon.
Uncle Cal never had children with either of his two wives (Mamie, who died young, and Bell, who outlived him by fifteen years), so he took an active interest in his siblings’ children; he became the father my grandmother never had. These nieces and nephews spent endless summers at his horse farm in Lexington; later, their children visited too. This is how my father came to know him so well.
In thanks for the generosity and ongoing kindness her uncle showed her mother as a young widow, my grandmother gave her first born child, my dad, the middle name of Calvin, but all eschewed his first name, and my father has been known as “Cal” all his life. In further tribute to his great uncle’s loving and ongoing interest in his life, my father gave me, his firstborn, the middle name of Milam.
LIKE EVERYONE ELSE IN THE BUSINESS, HIS HORSES MADE HIS NAME
The horse so many people knew Uncle Cal for was the great racer Exterminator. He may have won the Kentucky Derby in 1918, but he wasn’t the best-looking race horse; he was widely known as Old Bones. In fact, he was so ungainly, a false story that he was bought to use as a trainer for other horses circulated for years, even when Uncle Cal refuted it.
Exterminator is ranked twenty-ninth among the top 100 US thoroughbred champions of the twentieth century by The Blood Horse. The National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame says that his career record of thirty-three stakes wins has never been broken. Uncle Cal bought him as a yearling for $1,500 at auction. Good eye, Uncle Cal.
A lot of Baby Boomers read a children’s book about Exterminator called Old Bones, The Wonder Horse, written by Mildred Mastin Pace and illustrated by Wesley Dennis (McGraw-Hill, 1956, reissued in paperback in 1983). This book was how I was introduced to this part of my family’s history, even though from birth I knew an “Uncle Cal” had helped raise my grandmother. Imagine my surprise when at the age of seven I saw my middle name in this book! This was about “our” Uncle Cal!
Among the other horses he was known for were Tut Tut; Dunlin; Anna M. Humphrey; Komuraski; Commodore; Brown Wisdom; Miss Joy (winner of the 1921 Flash Stakes); Milkmaid; McKee (winner of the National Stallion Stakes), Dust Flower (he defeated Cartoonist and Messenger in the 1922 Flash Stakes), and Merrick, to name a few. Even when he didn’t own a horse, he had an opinion about it.
HIS INFLUENCE WAS WIDELY FELT
The business Uncle Cal ran was a public sales stable; he bought, bred, trained, and raced horses, not limited to specific owners, always with an eye to making a profit. He had a gift for training young horses and for spotting talent at sales auctions, to the point that if he showed interest in an animal, the price would go up. He also raced horses under his own colors of green and gold.
He is also said to have been good at bringing jockeys along, giving a boost to many a riding career. I’ve always wondered why many of these photos so clearly identify the jockeys. Perhaps he was publicly giving them their due. Two hall-of-famers he worked with were Mack Garner and Charles Kurtsinger, inducted in 1969 and 1967, respectively.
A number of yellowing newspaper articles buried in envelopes of old photos reveal that Cal Milam was well regarded among his peers, to the extent that a feature race at Keeneland on April 9, 1942, was named for him, high tribute in the race world.
HE MAY HAVE BEEN SHREWD ABOUT HORSES, BUT HE HAD A BIG HEART
While it was rare for Uncle Cal to hold on to a horse, his relationship with Merrick, a gelding, is legend. Merrick won money in 157 of his 205 races and finished first 62 times. He lost Merrick in several claiming races but always managed to get him back.
In fact, he so loved that horse that he named his farm Merrick Place. I can tell you that standing over Merrick’s grave in front of the farm’s manor house Uncle Cal and Aunt Bell lived in on Tate’s Creek Pike just outside Lexington is a deeply moving testament to what man will do for animals.
When Merrick died at the age of thirty-eight, newspapers across the country marked the occasion with obituary copy that mourned the horse’s death and described the entire racing community’s grief for Uncle Cal’s loss. The way he cared for his horses was extolled and celebrated as “above and beyond the commercial atmosphere that racing has become.” The year was 1941.
NOT ALL OF HIS HORSES WERE BEAUTIFUL
At our kitchen table the most famous horse was Jackie Coogan, a white Arabian pony. He was part of the gang of utilitarian horses that helped the farm; Uncle Cal had fields of tobacco, corn, and hay. Jackie must have been gentle to be ridden bareback by a three-year old.
Dad rode Jackie every time he visited Merrick Place. I’m not sure when Jackie died, but he was big in my dad’s memories of life with Uncle Cal and Aunt Bell every summer. When Uncle Cal died in 1949, Dad was eighteen. It was like losing a second father, he has said many times.
UNCLE CAL AND ME
I have been to and eaten at Merrick Inn, the restaurant in what used to be the Manor House on the farm in Lexington, long since developed. I know which bedroom window belonged to my grandmother and then to my father when they visited. I have stood over Merrick’s grave in the front yard there and that of Leroy Brown, a beloved dog, next to it. I don’t have a photo of the grave, but the stone is a flat rectangle set into the ground and it reads:
Golden Garter – Bianca
Jan 25, 1903 – Mar 13, 1941
Noble in Character Worthy in Deed
I imagine other nieces, nephews, and greats-of-these have photos of his horses like I do. I don’t know why this handful were given to my dad or what significance they held, but clearly they were important enough to warrant the expense of special photography and commemoration.
Every horse race I watch sends my heart over the moon and I seem to have a way with training dogs. But every horse I’ve ever been near has stepped on me, nipped me, or scraped me off against a fence. That’s OK, Uncle Cal. Thanks for looking after my grandmother and my dad. Thanks for being such a true Southern Gentleman and acknowledged contributor to the Sport of Kings. Thanks for preserving your legacy in photographs. You were noble and worthy, indeed.
SEE MORE “UNCLE CAL” PHOTOS HERE: