by Pam Gleason
It was Saturday, May 1, 1993. The first Saturday in May means one thing to horse people: the Kentucky Derby. The Derby is one of the hardest races in the world to win, and one of the most prized. In 1993, Paul Mellon, 85, a member of the Jockey Club and a distinguished owner of champion race horses, had won just about every major race in the world except the Derby. His trainer, Mackenzie Miller, 71, had never won a Derby either. That year, Mellon and Mackenzie had one entry in the race: an inconsistent dark bay colt named Sea Hero.
Sea Hero had looked like a champion as a 2-year-old, but faltered at the start of his 3-year-old year. He was racing in Florida; he did not like the heat and humidity, and his performances were lackluster.
At the end of February, Mellon shipped the colt up to Aiken and started working him over the Aiken Training Track. The weather was cool, the footing inviting, and Sea Hero got fitter and fitter. In April, he went to Keeneland where he finished fourth in the Bluegrass Stakes, beaten by less than three lengths. He may not have looked like a Derby winner, but he had the air of a contender. Mellon and Mac decided to give him his shot. After all, Mellon was in the process of disbursing his racing stock, and Sea Hero looked like his last, best chance to make it to the Derby winner’s circle.
That Saturday, the morning line had Sea Hero at 30-1, but the betting public got him down to 13-1 by the bell. It was a 19-horse field, and Sea Hero drew the number 6 post position. He had a perfect trip. He broke well and settled in behind the pack, saving ground along the rail. In the backstretch, his jockey, Jerry Bailey , started looking for racing room as the horses in front of him slowed.
“As I got to each bunch, the horses got tired and split apart,” Bailey told Sports Illustrated after the race. Bailey hugged the rail at the top of the stretch, running along about three lengths from the leaders. He had plenty of gas, but for a moment it looked like there would be no room to run.Then, a gap opened up along the rail.
“The hole was huge,” Bailey said, “especially the second time I looked at it. I knew I could get there.”
And he did. Sea Hero turned on the afterburners, charging the up the rail and into the lead, and then leaving the field behind to win by 2 1/2 lengths. It was the first Derby win for Bailey, too. And it made Mellon the first owner ever to win the Kentucky Derby, the Arc de Triomphe (France) and the Epsom Derby (England.)
Sea Hero was the fourth and most recent Aiken trained horse to win the Kentucky Derby. The others are Swale (1984), Pleasant Colony (1981) and Shut Out (1942). Today, Sea Hero is still standing stud in Turkey, and is the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner.
Aiken will not have a home town horse in the race this year, but it will still be a gala day in this horse crazy city. No one to watch it with? Try the Kentucky Derby party at Wing Place on Pine Log Road, a benefit for Equine Rescue of Aiken.