The lamp of the Saratoga racing season had barely been lit when news came that Sea Hero, Paul Mellon’s homebred hero, had died in Turkey at the age of 29. Sea Hero’s score in the 1993 Travers Stakes (G1) is synonymous with the Spa as a statue of the horse is the centerpiece of the paddock.
Not the most consistent horse—he only won six times in 24 starts under the care of the late Hall of Fame trainer MacKenzie Miller—Sea Hero holds a certain spot in the hearts of those who follow Thoroughbred racing as a surprise 8-1 winner of the 1992 Champagne Stakes (G1) and the gritty 12-1 winner of the 1993 Kentucky Derby (G1).
We were lucky enough to be on hand at Belmont Park in early October 1992—for the big oval’s “Super Saturday” program that featured a galaxy of talent in its six graded stakes. Heavy rain the night before had left the track muddy despite clear autumn skies. The graded stakes began with the seven-furlong First Flight Handicap (G2), won by Robert Evans’ Shared Interest. She would show even more flash in retirement—her first two foals were grade 1 winner and sire Forestry and 1999 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) winner Cash Run. Fourth in the First Flight was Claiborne Farm’s Preach, the dam of breed-shaping sire Pulpit.
Ogden Mills Phipps’ Educated Risk won the Frizette Stakes (G1), followed by Roman Envoy’s upset of two-time Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1T) winner Lure in the one-mile Kelso Handicap (G3T). Next up was the nine-furlong Beldame Stakes (G1), won by Saratoga Dew, who would be named champion 3-year-old filly after defeating 3-5 favorite and four-time grade 1 winner Versailles Treaty over a drying-out track upgraded to “good.”
That surface proved perfect for Sea Hero in the Champagne, and Jerry Bailey rated off a hot early pace to win the one-turn mile by 5 3/4 lengths. The day’s main event saw Pleasant Tap defeat Strike the Gold and A.P. Indy, who had been left at the gate, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1).
Sea Hero didn’t find the winner’s circle again until the following year’s Run for the Roses. Not caring for the heat of Florida during his early 3-year-old campaign, Miller deftly moved him first to South Carolina, then Kentucky, where the colt’s arc moved upward in April despite having finished fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2). Miller was doubtful in late April about his chances, but began to have a “private feeling we would run well.”
As fate would have it, it rained about an hour before the Derby, making the track at Churchill very similar to the one Sea Hero had relished in the Champagne. Sea Hero and Bailey hugged the rail, caught a break when it opened up, and they shot through to win the Derby by 2 1/2 lengths. Soundly defeated in the final two legs of the Triple Crown, he rallied in the 10-furlong Travers in August, winning by two lengths. It marked a glorious double for Mellon and Miller as they had won the Travers six years earlier with Java Gold.
Sea Hero’s stud career was as inconsistent as his racing career, starting at Lane’s End Farm in 1995 before he was shipped to Turkey in 2000. His half sister, Wild Applause, is the great-granddam of Elate, winner of the July 13 Delaware Handicap (G2); his half brother, Hero’s Honor, is the broodmare sire of Elusive Quality, the sire of 142 stakes winners, including 2019 grade 1 winner She’s a Julie.
Mellon, one of the original Exemplars of Racing in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, passed in 1999. The classy Miller, known as the “gentleman trainer,” died in December 2010, followed by the death of his gracious wife, Martha, in 2015.
Sea Hero’s departure allows one last remembrance of his exceptional scores 26 years ago. Long may he run.