The Big Horse of Preakness is in its accustomed spot atop the sports world

Bill Tanton

May 11, 1993|By Bill Tanton

The Big Horse. There's nothing else in sports like it.

Baseball, football, basketball, hockey -- they all have their stars. They don't have one participant who suddenly overwhelms their game. They don't have a Big Horse.

"The Big Horse is in 40," Cocky Johnson was saying at dawn yesterday.

Of course, The Big Horse was in Pimlico's stall 40. The Big Horse, in racing lingo, is the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

He could be short of stature, but to racetrackers he is still The Big Horse. Traditionally, he beds down in stall 40 when he comes to the Preakness.

Cocky Johnson knows that better than anyone. Johnson runs the stakes barn at Old Hilltop, where, yesterday, there were eight 3-year-olds waiting for Saturday's 118th running of the Preakness. By week's end, there will be two or three more.

At 6 a.m., with a blazing, orange sun rising, The Big Horse -- more commonly known as Sea Hero -- emerged from stall40. With exercise rider Jean-Pierre Fourchault in the saddle, Sea Hero went out for his first look at the Pimlico racetrack.

"We'll walk him," assistant trainer Danny Furr was saying. "Let him see a lot of things. Gallop him about a mile."

Furr came to Baltimore Saturday night to supervise Sea Hero's arrival by van at 10:15 the next morning. The colt's head trainer, Mack Miller, is still at New York's Belmont Park.

"We've got 19 horses at Belmont," Furr said. "Mack hasn't seen much of them lately."

Miller, 71, has been occupied with the first Derby winner of his Hall of Fame training career.

Sea Hero is also the first Derby winner for his owner, 86-year-old Paul Mellon, who bought his first race horse 60 years ago.

If ever a Derby victory was popular with horsemen, it's this year's. Mellon and the low-key, gentlemanly Miller are two of the most admired and respected men in racing.

At the pre-Derby trainers' dinner in Louisville, there was a spontaneous standing ovation when Miller was introduced.

"People all over the room," recalls Triple Crown Productions executive director Ed Seigenfeld, "were saying, 'If we can't win it, I hope Mack Miller and Mr. Mellon do.' "

Sea Hero will enjoy enormous support in the Preakness, and not only because of the popularity of his owner and trainer. The only way there'll be a Triple Crown winner is for Sea Hero to win Saturday.

Racing takes on another dimension when it has a Triple Crown winner, and no horse has won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes since Affirmed did it in 1978. With racing on hard economic times, this would be a propitious year for the sport's 12th Triple Crown winner.

"We need a Triple Crown winner," said former Baltimorean Audrey Korotkin, who has spent the past several years promoting the Triple Crown. "And for Mr. Mellon to do it -- whew!"

Nothing that Furr saw of Sea Hero yesterday caused him to lose any confidence.

"He looks good," said Furr, who has been assistant to Miller for 11 years, and before that was assistant to another Hall of Fame trainer, Frank Whiteley, for 10. "He's very relaxed. He's a nice moving horse. Long striding. He kind of lopes."

Furr was not surprised when Sea Hero won America's greatest horse race, though legions of bettors were. The colt went off at 12-1.

"I wasn't sure we'd win the Derby," Furr said, "but I thought he'd run a nice race. He was going in fresh. He'd only run three or four times this year."

Sea Hero proved his class by winning the Champagne Stakes in New York last October, but he had a bad winter campaign in Florida.

"It was too hot for him down there," Furr said. "I don't know how long it takes to acclimate, but I was there for three months one winter and I still didn't like it. We took the horse back to Aiken, S.C., where it was cooler. He liked it there."

Everyone connected with Sea Hero knew he was a nice horse, even if the bettors had been scared off.

Now he is racing's Big Horse. Four days from now, millions will pull for him to keep the Triple Crown championship alive.

"The Preakness will be the toughest test of the three," Furr said. "It's the shortest race [the Preakness is run over 1 3/16 miles; the Derby 1 1/4 ; the Belmont 1 1/2 miles].

"This colt likes longer distances, but at least there's a long stretch here. There's some speed in the race. That's good for us."

The early speed will come from Woods of Windsor and Personal Hope. Personal Hope is likely to set the pace.

"Winning the Kentucky Derby was great," Furr said. "I thought winning the Travers was great, but the Derby is the ultimate."

Almost. Winning the Triple Crown is even better.

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