Sea Hero is set off track by surface, sunny day that is too perfect

KEN ROSENTHAL

May 16, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Stupid weather. Sea Hero runs best on a wet track, and with the warm temperature and gentle breeze at yesterday's Preakness, he never had a chance.

No one could remember a Preakness afternoon as spectacular, but if you want to know why the Kentucky Derby champion won't win the Triple Crown, blame the weather.

Too nice a day!

It has been 15 years since the last Triple Crown winner, and judging from the deteriorating quality of excuses, it might be another 50 before the next one.

Sea Hero, the hope of an entire industry, never was a factor yesterday, finishing an uninspired fifth, nine lengths behind Prairie Bayou.

The two horses ran together in the back of the pack until the second turn. Sea Hero rallied with a four-wide move, but as the official race comments noted, "lacked further response."

Why?

"I certainly don't think he liked the racetrack," Sea Hero trainer Mack Miller said. "He had a good workout the other day, but today there were 50 minutes between races.

"It was a nice day -- no humidity, nice wind -- and it dried it [the track] out. He didn't seem to appreciate it."

Ridiculous as the whole thing sounds, it actually makes sense. Sea Hero's breeding suggests he's better suited for off tracks. His past performances reflect that tendency as well.

Sea Hero has run only two good races on dirt -- the Derby and the Champagne Stakes -- and both came on wet tracks. The conditions yesterday were ideal. The Pimlico strip was dry and fast.

Some hero, this Sea Hero.

He couldn't get a grip.

The horse had zillions of other possible excuses -- the no-Lasix factor, the sharp-turn factor, the short-layoff factor -- but Miller settled on the track.

Think Secretariat ever lodged such a complaint?

In fairness, Miller never expected to win, indicating all week that his horse would have a better chance in the Belmont marathon, where he could run more comfortably off the pace.

The point is, only a monster horse can win the Triple Crown. And, for a variety of reasons, racing no longer appears capable of producing such an animal.

"It takes a really good horse," said Steve Cauthen, the jockey who made Affirmed the last Triple Crown champion in 1978, and analyzed the Preakness yesterday for ABC-TV.

"The real tough part is to keep him in peak condition. A horse is trained to reach his peak at the Derby. Then, to hold him at his peak through the Preakness and Belmont, it's obviously a very difficult thing."

The races are only five weeks apart. They're run at different distances. A horse can't win all three without adapting to a

variety of conditions -- such as a wet track one race, a dry one the next.

It was possible years back, when tycoons like Paul Mellon, Sea Hero's owner, owned all the horses, and bred the best ones to each other. But so many owners jumped in during the lucrative '80s, the bloodstock became diluted.

Now, many of those owners are gone, victims of the recession and a dying industry. Arab sheiks filled the void, but they're racing and breeding the most desirable horses in Europe.

The foal crop reduces every year, further diminishing the odds of a top horse emerging. Thus, it's no coincidence that only two horses have won both the Derby and Preakness in the past 12 years.

As always in racing, some of this is luck. In 1973, Secretariat ended a 25-year streak without a Triple Crown winner. But after that, Seattle Slew and Affirmed made it three sweeps in six years.

Part of the problem is that the best horse rarely wins the overcrowded Derby. It's a Catch-22: A super horse would scare away the pretenders. But all the super horses are gone.

What will it take for all this to reverse?

"What's this much?" Cauthen asked, holding his thumb and forefinger two inches apart. "It doesn't take much to make it go wrong.

"Look at Hansel," Cauthen said, referring to the Preakness and Belmont winner in 1991. "Who knows why he ran such a bad race in the Derby? I talked to [jockey] Jerry Bailey. He still doesn't understand.

"This is the whole thing. For a horse to win the Triple Crown, he has to be tough, and genuine and versatile. And he has to be lucky."

Whatever, the betting public isn't fooled. The Kentucky Derby winner commanded so little respect from the Pimlico crowd yesterday, he was the third choice at 4-1.

The air was warm. The breeze was mild.

Stupid weather.

Sea Hero had no chance.

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