The Hero

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“Count your coughs. Change your leads. Watch my flag.”

Those were the only three instructions MacKenzie Miller gave to his riders before a breeze.

The Hall of Fame trainer wanted to know if a horse coughed, that was important. He wanted his horses to switch their leads on cue, that was crucial. And he wanted his riders to watch his flag.

Long before walkie-talkies, Miller sat in the grandstand at Belmont Park or Saratoga, closer to the turn than the wire, with a big orange flag. When a horse – oh, let’s say Fit To Fight – was ticking off fractions to Miller’s delight, he would hold his flag still and square. When a horse – Java Gold, You’d Be Surprised, Winter’s Tale – wasn’t going fast enough, Miller would wave his flag like a Times Square traffic cop.

Tils Tilbury and Sea Hero. They didn’t need a flag.

“The thing about breezing that horse, he never even felt like he touched the ground, he was so light,” Tilbury said Friday morning while cleaning tack at John Morrison’s barn on the Oklahoma side. “I breezed a lot of horses for Mr. Miller, it got to be so easy because he trained them all the same, so they would breeze all the same. But this horse was different, you couldn’t tell how fast you were going.”

Owned and bred by Paul Mellon, Sea Hero went fast enough to win the Champagne in 1992 and the Kentucky Derby and Travers in 1993. The star-crossed son of Polish Navy won six of 24 starts for $2.9 million and wound up with a statue in the paddock at Saratoga. Sea Hero died July 12 at age 29.

“We had a lot of nice horses, I got on a lot of nice horses for them,” Tilbury said. “But you had that Derby horse, that’s the horse everybody knows.”

Sea Hero did something most horses can’t, he came through when needed most, delivering the long-coveted Kentucky Derby trophy to the most deserving owner the sport has ever known. It was the last jewel missing in Mellon’s crown, one that included the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the Epsom Derby, champions here and abroad. A philanthropist, a collector of art, land, horses and people, Mellon made the world a better place. Tilbury still collects a pension, a check every month, for her five years with Rokeby Stable. A pension in the horse game!

“That whole era is gone,” Tilbury said. “I guess that’s what hit me the hardest when I heard he died.”

Yes, it was a different era. It was an era when private trainers developed whole crops of homebreds, without the pressure of a sales windfall. It was an era when horses ate oats, flax and corn, cooked in metal drums. It was an era when every exercise rider in the barn wore yellow Rokeby shirts and jackets. It was an era when the whole set would walk in a line out of Miller’s round barn at Belmont Park, all the colts would turn left, all the fillies would turn right and Miller would look at all the horses before giving instructions. And, yes, it was an era when a trainer could breeze a Derby winner twice in the same morning to prepare for the Travers and not be belittled or begrudged. At least not on the Internet.

After the perfect trip in the Derby, Sea Hero failed to land a blow in the Preakness, Belmont Stakes and the Jim Dandy. Fifth behind Prairie Bayou in the Preakness, seventh behind Colonial Affair in the Belmont and a dull fourth, 7 ½ lengths behind Miner’s Mark in the Jim Dandy, Sea Hero had Miller flummoxed. He called Tilbury into his office.

“This horse is holding his breath, Tils,” Miller said. “We’ve got to get him to breathe.”

Miller devised a plan and explained it to Tilbury.

“OK,” she said, always the good soldier.

Tilbury breezed Sea Hero 3 furlongs or a half-mile (she can’t remember) on the main track, no flag, and rode him back to the paddock and circled under the trees. Miller counted minutes on his watch.

“OK,” Miller said. “Go again.”

Sea Hero breezed again, a little farther than the first time. The next time he set foot on the main track at Saratoga, he rallied from eighth to win the Travers.

“He called it interval training,” Tilbury said. “I think I did it twice. Everybody thought it was a joke. They were kind of making fun of him, about how he was training, ‘This is some crazy (stuff).’ And then he goes and wins. I was like, ‘I guess the guy knows what he’s doing.’ ”

Sea Hero won one allowance race and lost eight races after the Travers, retiring after finishing fifth as the favorite in the Phoenix at Keeneland in October, 1994.

The Virginia-bred won’t go down as one of the sport’s greatest horses, partially dismissed because of a 6-for-25 record and a lackluster stallion career, but sometimes it’s more about a singular achievement. Sea Hero won the Kentucky Derby and added the Travers as a bonus, providing closure and definition to the storied legacies of Mellon and Miller.

“That’s all that horse had to do,” Tilbury said. “He was born to do that. And he did it.”