LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It hardly seems like two decades have passed since Aiken’s horse and adopted son made off with the Kentucky Derby. However, time has not dimmed the memories of those magic moments when three exemplars of the turf and a small, inconsistent colt named Sea Hero galloped away with the roses.
Aiken’s adopted son was Mack Miller, who thought of himself simply as a trainer of thoroughbred horses. Others felt differently, attaching adjectives such as “outstanding,” “masterful,” and “highly respected.” Truth is, the others were closer to the man than he was himself in the sincere humility that marked him throughout his life.
Miller took things as they came and then made them better. In the case of Sea Hero, it took all of Miller’s skill to get him to the day of his appointment with destiny. And the route went through Aiken, where Miller had been wintering since the mid 1950s.
It took Sea Hero four races to graduate from the maiden ranks, that victory being achieved at Belmont Park on Sept. 7, 1992. Then the colt proceeded to do something he would never accomplish again – achieve consecutive victories. Because he had a grass pedigree, Miller thought a suitable plan would be to test those genes in an allowance event at 1 mile on the turf. The result, two weeks after his initial triumph, was that Sea Hero won again, easily. Nineteen days later, Sea Hero made a big splash by winning the prestigious Champagne Stakes by more than five lengths, vaulting into contention for the leadership of the juvenile division.
Seeking a championship, Miller sent Sea Hero to Gulfstream Park to contest the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but the result was a disappointment. The colt finished a well-beaten seventh and postseason laurels were left for others.
MILLER HAD INVESTED substantial time working with Sea Hero’s intricacies during his 2-year-old season. He tried a number of different bits and experimented with a “sure-win,” a device that holds the bit high in the mouth, preventing the horse from getting his tongue over it. And for his first start on the turf, Miller added blinkers to Sea Hero’s equipment, which he continued to race with in his next five starts.
Rested for 60 days, Sea Hero commenced training in the warm southern Florida climate and seemed to do well. But appearances were deceiving. A soft spot for his return was sought and the Palm Beach Stakes at a mile and a sixteenth on the grass on Feb.7, 1993, seemed to fit. Sea Hero finished ninth.
Eighteen days later an allowance race yielded only a slightly better result. Miller had seen enough. Thinking that perhaps his charge disliked the Miami heat as much as he did, Miller arranged to ship the colt to Aiken.
And it was there that a minor miracle took place. The colt bloomed, dapples appearing on his coat. His gallops improved. Miller, surrounded by camellias, began thinking of roses.
PART OF THIS PROCESS had to do with Miller’s employer. For 16 years, he had trained for Paul Mellon, a distinguished gentleman of considerable wealth, heavy into charities and philanthropy, an art collector literally without peer in North America, and a devotee of the sport of horse racing for decades. Together Mellon and Miller had achieved much success, but they had never brought a horse to the Derby.
Mellon had been there three times with horses under the supervision of previous trainers and had come close to winning with Arts and Letters, second in 1969 to Majestic Prince and beaten by a neck. Miller’s lone Derby effort, also for a former employer, was with Jig Time, which finished sixth in 1968.
Promising youngsters such as Red Ransom and Eastern Echo had generated Derby dreams for the Mellon-Miller team, but both suffered career-ending injuries well before the first Saturday in May of their respective sophomore seasons.
As the spring of 1993 approached, Mellon was 85 years old and Miller was 71. Believing that Mellon might not have many more opportunities, Miller decided to give it a go. After six weeks in Aiken, Sea Hero shipped to Keeneland to train for the Blue Grass Stakes. He worked well and ran well, but was compromised by crowding early in the homestretch and finished fourth. Nonetheless, the decision was made to go to Louisville.
IN SHORT ORDER, Sea Hero turned in a poor workout and backed away from his feed bucket. The temptation to abandon the quest must have been there, but Mellon and Miller persevered and, all of a sudden, Derby week began.
The third member of the team was just along for the ride. Jerry Bailey was emerging as one of the top jockeys in the country but, like Mellon and Miller, he had not yet won a Derby. Sea Hero looked like $1 million, but Bailey was skeptical.
“I was not over-brimming with confidence,” Bailey said this week at Churchill Downs. “The horse looked good, but he didn’t handle the track at all in his final workout. I had ridden a lot of horses for Mr. Mellon and for Mack, so I was in all the way. But confident? Not really.”
Most everyone knows the rest of the story. Sea Hero went to the post the ninth choice of the betting public at just under 13-1. And, without his customary blinkers, he had the perfect trip.
“Just as I said back then, it was like the Red Sea parting,” Bailey reminisced. “Every time I caught up with traffic, it split. When I got to within a length of Personal Hope at the top of the stretch, it dawned on me that we had a chance. Then the hole on the rail opened up, he went through it and was gone.
“I knew I had it won just inside the eighth pole. And as we approached the wire, I actually started to shed tears because, when my wife asked if she should come, I told her to just stay home with our 6-month-old son. I told her we didn’t have much of a chance.”
IN THE AFTERMATH, Mellon credited Miller and Miller credited Mellon. Bailey, who considered Miller a second father, credited the one who parted the Red Sea. And thoroughbred racing’s many devotees credited them all.
As Bailey said, “I just feel like it was meant to be. Sea Hero was a very inconsistent horse. You know he only had one more big day, that summer in the Travers.”
Mellon, who celebrated his 45th anniversary on Derby Day 1993, passed away in 1999 and Miller followed him 11 years later. Bailey, in his role as television commentator, will be visible Saturday. And Sea Hero holds the distinction of being the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner, still standing at stud in Turkey.
Some Kentucky Derbies have been won by undeserving sorts and, by contrast, many others have been won by those who have paid their dues. But no Derby has ever been won by three more deserving participants than the renewal of 1993.
It was the quintessential Derby.