Mellon provides sporting flashback

JOHN EISENBERG

May 02, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- This is the way it used to be, the way it was back on either side of World War II, when horse racing was a closed society, when it belonged to the Vanderbilts and Whitneys and Rockefellers, when it was a genteel constituency of family money, lawn parties and sporting men.

"What business are you in?" a clearly uninformed British reporter asked 85-year-old Paul Mellon yesterday after Mellon's horse, Sea Hero, came charging down the stretch to win the Kentucky Derby.

"Well," said Mellon, holding his brown top hat and leaning forward on his cane, "I guess you could say I have been in all kinds of business."

You could say that. The Mellons are simply one of the wealthiest families in the world, long prominent at the forefront of the American establishment. They donate art museums. They build universities. They're Pittsburgh steel. If they don't own one of everything, they're close.

Such families were the cloth of American racing until the '50s. They passed the Kentucky Derby among themselves. They bred their horses only to each other's, keeping the bloodlines pure and the riffraff out. It was anything but a commoner's game.

That all started changing when the patriarchs died and their kids wanted the money instead of the horses. One by one, the family dynasties broke up. At the same time, racing became a year-round sport in most states, creating a new and enormous need for horseflesh, opening up the game to anyone who wanted in. Suddenly, the sport of kings was no more. It was a sport for anyone with a couple of bucks and a prayer. It was a democracy, by golly.

That's when you started seeing people's horses, true underdogs. A Triple Crown winner sold as a yearling for next to nothing, as was Seattle Slew. A Derby winner with bloodlines so obscure and unpromising that the horse was turned down for auction before it started racing. That was last year's winner, Lil E. Tee. Such horses probably never would have even made it to the races in the old days. Too common.

Sea Hero is a throwback. The bay colt looked like an outsider before the Derby as a 12-1 shot on the tote board, but that was misleading. The horse is all establishment. Old money. A Derby winner from a racing dynasty. The way it used to be. And never will be again.

Paul Mellon has owned horses since 1933. He has spent millions on the game, truly too much money to count. He has owned thoroughbreds and steeplechasers and point-to-pointers. He still lives on a majestic farm in Virginia.

For decades he has sustained his thoroughbred family with old-money bloodlines and his own horses and a lot of patience. He bred Sea Hero himself, matching one of his mares to a Claiborne Farm stallion named Polish Navy.

"What's beautiful about this," trainer Mack Miller said, "is that the horse is a homebred."

The Derby winner always used to be a homebred. Born and raised on some splendid farm and raced in the family name. Then, when the game changed, it was not surprising to see a Derby winner that had changed hands once or twice or even three times, moving from barn to barn and state to state.

Mellon has owned Sea Hero since the horse's first teetering step.

The way it used to be.

"This is a victory," said Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones, a major horse breeder, "for the finest international sportsman of our day."

There was no fist-pumping or bear-hugging or ya-hooing in the winner's circle. You didn't do that in the old days. You just smiled and patted your horse.

But then, Mellon wasn't about to go crazy. The truth is that he has had a better horse, a British champion named Bull Reef who, he said, was far superior to Sea Hero. And he has already experienced the pinnacle, winning England's Epson Derby and France's Arc d'Triomphe, the biggest races in Europe and every bit as important as the Derby to those who seek them.

"How do you feel now?" a reporter asked Mellon yesterday.

"Well," he said, "very happy."

Outside the post-race party for the owners in the Derby Museum, fans were screeching and kicking beer cans on their way to the car. Inside, Mellon was surrounded by reporters and minicams and strangers with beery congratulations. The Derby is nothing if not a brawl now, of course.

Paul Mellon sat in the middle of it all with a gentle smile. You know that it used to be like that every year.

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