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'Am�rique 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."
"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.