LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Even at age 12, while riding quarterhorses in match races for his father in New Mexico, Jerry Bailey didn't dream of one day booting home the winner of a Kentucky Derby. Young Bailey was more into football and expended his childhood fantasies on one day starring in the Green Bay backfield.
As it turned out, the Packers had little use for a 5-foot-5, 112-pound ball carrier, but Bailey still made like a Heisman halfback Saturday in one of America's showcase sporting events. Like a runner cutting back off tackle, Bailey and his pal, Sea Hero, spurted through a wall of horses at the eighth pole and ran off with the 119th Kentucky Derby.
Bailey's first victory in six Derby rides was largely an unexpected, though popular, one in that it also placed 85-year-old owner Paul Mellon and 7l-year-old Hall of Fame trainer Mack Miller in the Derby winner's circle for the first time in their long careers. It was made possible by that inspired move in mid-stretch, when Bailey turned Sea Hero into an opening near the rail between fading Storm Tower and Corby. Bailey hit the gas, and Sea Hero responded, slipping through on the rail past four leaders to a 2 1/2 -length victory.
The 13-1 long shot once again proved all us Vaunted Racetrack Experts incapable of gleaning a winner out of yet another undistinguished pack of milk-wagon mules posing as classic colts. The anointed favorite has now come up empty in 14 consecutive Derbys.
But we VRE's can claim deception. Sea Hero managed to mask his potential completely in Derby preps in Miami, running ninth in the Palm Beach Stakes and losing a turf race as the favorite to a filly. Only Sammie Smith has run worse in South Florida.
Baffled and disappointed, Miller sent the horse to a South Carolina farm where he says the animal was somehow rejuvenated. South Carolina narcs are no doubt looking into the matter, though no serious chemical assist could have produced a time like this.
California supertrainer D. Wayne Lukas scoffed at the suggestion this was an evenly matched field, sneering that "half the field will barely make it around ahead of the water truck." Little did he imagine his own charge, Union City, would be among those sloths.
Our rose-draped heroes have now failed to beat 2:02 in the past eight Derbys. In one stretch in the '70s, Derby winners broke 2:02 five out of seven years. They keep telling me we're in an era of computer breeding and high-tech training, but I keep noticing that our Derby champions are getting slower. You get the idea if these guys were in charge of human runners, we'd still be trying to crack the 4-minute mile. Pretty soon, they may have to move up the traditional post time to midafternoon to keep from erecting arc-lights.
But at any pace, it's still the Derby, and considerable fame will attach itself to Miller and Bailey and Mellon because of their triumph Saturday, no matter how pedestrian this edition.
Bailey, who had won the other two Triple Crown jewels aboard Hansel in 1991, acknowledged as much. "When people meet you on the street, they don't ask if you've won the Preakness or Belmont. They ask if you've won the Derby," he said, cheerfully adding: "Now it's nice to be able to say yes."