LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Years ago, after losing a race with a horse ridden by Ralph Neves, trainer Charlie Whittingham walked off the track, talking to the jockey.
"What's wrong with this horse is that he needs blinkers," Neves said.
"What the . . . are you talking about?" Whittingham said. "He was wearing blinkers."
"Well, take 'em off, then," Neves said.
On April 10, Sea Hero, a well-bred colt who hadn't won a race in six months, finished fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. He had been wearing blinkers, and jockey Jerry Bailey suggested to trainer Mack Miller that they take them off, a drastic equipment change considering that the next race was the Kentucky Derby.
"He was wearing blinkers in the beginning because he was green," Bailey said. "But then with the blinkers on, he was getting too aggressive too early. The idea (about removing the blinkers) was to get him to relax. If you're getting ready to run a mile and a quarter, you don't want to have a horse who's fighting you."
At Churchill Downs on Saturday, Sea Hero and Bailey found an opening along the rail with slightly more than an eighth of a mile to run and went on to win the 119th Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths.
Owner-breeder Paul Mellon, 85, joined Miller, 71, in the winner's circle. Both were beginning to believe that they would never win the Derby.
"It's been a long time between drinks of water," said Miller, who had started only one horse, Jig Time, who finished fifth in 1968. "We thought time was running out."
A Pittsburgh-born philanthropist, Mellon has won some of the world's most important races, including the Arc de Triomphe in France, the Epsom Derby in England and the Belmont Stakes twice in New York. But his three Derby starters, trained by the late Elliott Burch, had never done better than second, and Mellon's Rokeby Stables colors of yellow and gray hadn't appeared in a Derby post parade since 1972. Last year, Mellon began trimming back his bloodstock, figuring he might not live long enough to see some of the young horses run.
Late Saturday, on his 45th wedding anniversary, Mellon said: "You can't put this into words. It's very exciting, something you never believe is going to happen to you until it does. I've had disappointments over the years. I had three or four horses who looked like they might be able to win a race like this."
This Derby had no clear-cut favorite in the field of 19. For the millions watching on television and 136,817 at Churchill Downs, the outcome was predictably unpredictable.
Prairie Bayou, becoming the 14th consecutive favorite to fail in the Derby, took the wide trip that Bailey and Sea Hero were able to avoid and made his customary late run to finish second. A head back in third was Wild Gale, a member of the parimutuel field who, like Sea Hero, hadn't won this year. In fourth place, a neck behind Wild Gale, was Personal Hope, who held the lead before Sea Hero passed him; and after him, in order, came Diazo, Corby, Kissin Kris, Silver Of Silver, Ragtime Rebel, Truth Of It All, Bull Inthe Heather, Dixieland Heat, Wallenda, Mi Cielo, Union City, Storm Tower, Rockamundo, El Bakan and Tossofthecoin.
The early fractions, set by Storm Tower with Personal Hope pestering him until taking the lead at the quarter pole, were 22 4/5, 46 3/5, 1:11 1/5 and 1:36 4/5. Sea Hero's winning time was 2:02 2/5 on a fast track that was damp from late-afternoon sprinkles, and his across-the-board payoffs as the 12-1 eighth choice were $27.80, $12.80 and $8 at Churchill Downs. Prairie Bayou, the longest-priced favorite in Derby history at $4.40-1, paid $7.20 and $4.80. Wild Gale, because of his position in the seven-horse mutuel field, was only 8-1 and paid $4.20 to show. The $2 exacta on the first two finishers paid $190.60.
Of the $985,900 purse, $735,900 went to Sea Hero, who had lost four consecutive races, going winless since the Champagne at Belmont Park on Oct. 10. He went into the Derby with three victories in 10 tries.
Prairie Bayou, on a four-race winning streak, was 16th after three-quarters of a mile, about 12 lengths behind Storm Tower. Jockey Mike Smith took the wide route that had worked for him in the Jim Beam and Blue Grass Stakes, but the gelding failed to deliver Saturday.
"I just had to go around, and the winner got through," Smith said. "That's not taking anything away from the winner. He just beat me today. My horse was a little late switching (his lead) on both turns, and it didn't help him none. He made his move big, and I thought I could get them from there. But when the horse exploded down inside, I said, 'Oh, man, it was going to be hard to get him.' "
Gary Stevens, riding Personal Hope, the Santa Anita Derby winner, believed at the top of the stretch that he might be en route to his second Kentucky Derby victory.