Florida escape starts Sea Hero's Hollywood finish


LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The new Kentucky Derby champion was so bad in Florida in February it was a surprise they didn't turn him over to the Salvation Army.

Sea Hero didn't run the Gulfstream track; he sort of toured it. They almost had to send out somebody with a map to give him directions to the wire.

He did beat one horse in the Palm Beach at Gulfstream Feb. 7; unfortunately there were eight others in the race. He finished third in a turf allowance race Feb. 25; in first place was a girl.

That filly, Icy Warning, was for sale soon thereafter.

Barry Irwin, managing partner of Team Valor Stables, looked into buying her.

"She beat Sea Hero on grass," Irwin campaigned to trainer Mark Hennig.

"Big deal," Hennig said.

It wasn't a big deal. From Halloween at the Breeders' Cup in Gulfstream through February, trainer MacKenzie Miller's first Derby champion ran three races described thusly in the notes on his past performances:

"No excuse." That was the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"Stopped." That was the Palm Beach.

"Lacked response." The Turf Allowance.

What was next? "Went into a coma"?

The racing world dispensed of the notion that Sea Hero could ever appear atop a Kentucky Derby chart with the description "Driving, inside." He slid from perception. He was an anonymous fourth in the Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 10. He careened all the way to 30-1 Saturday morning at Churchill Downs when in retrospect he should have drawn a bit of favor with the notation, "Thank God we're out of Florida."

Training at Hialeah, Sea Hero was just the latest in a series of beings who don't like South Florida. It was as if he were generally disdainful of humidity, pastel and rampant muggings.

In the paddock everybody thought he was an animal of majesty. A classic horse. Divinely sculpted. He was great except for the grating habit of being unable to run. But hey, he'd make a great beauty-contest entry.

In early December, trainer Scotty Schulhofer telephoned his dear friend Miller to say Sea Hero was taking to Florida like oil to water. Usually the acclimation process lasts about three weeks, Miller said. Sea Hero was late for acclimation. "And he just never accepted it," Miller said Sunday.

In February, having traveled south from his winter home in South Carolina for the Palm Beach, Miller watched Sea Hero finish ninth and then stormed out of the joint. Here was the shiny bay colt looking like a flop just four months after drilling the field in the Champagne, a sturdy Breeders' Cup tuneup at Belmont.

To catch Miller, a reporter had to give chase.

"Is the horse still on for the Kentucky Derby?"

"Don't you think he's going to have to beat these kind first?"

"A total disaster," Miller said yesterday in recollection.

Eventually they shipped Sea Hero back to South Carolina with, in a pivotal twist of plot, Schulhofer's recommendation that Miller revert to grass, the surface on which he broke his maiden at Belmont last September.

The jockey, Jerry Bailey, was baffled by the mismatch in look and performance. Fourth place in the Blue Grass lent some encouragement. Bailey suggested they remove Sea Hero's blinkers for the Derby, to relax him.

On Saturday night in New York, Schulhofer was thanking the stars his advice went unheeded.

The Derby result was sensational, like a movie, America in microcosm, rewarding an owner and a trainer whose aggregate age is 156.

By the time Sea Hero was driving, inside, and Miller, 71, was saying to owner Paul Mellon, 85, a la Carl Nafzger and Frances Genter, "Mr. Mellon, I think you're going to win a Derby," there was a crumb of logic to be had.

It's this: Louisville is not in Florida.

And as they proceed to the Preakness with Miller lightly saying he is pretty much through with Florida as a concept, you realize Sea Hero has a shot at the Triple Crown's middle gig as well, because Baltimore isn't in Florida either.

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