Written By Juliette Beauchamp
The last Virginia-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Sea Hero was born on March 4, 1990. Bred and owned by Paul Mellon, Sea Hero would go on to have a successful, though inconsistent, career as a racehorse and sire.
Mellon, the late philanthropist and art collector, was heir to the Mellon Bank fortune and founded Rokeby Stables in Upperville, Virginia in the late 1940’s. Active in both flat racing and steeplechasing, Rokeby Stables produced over 1,000 stakes winners that earned more than $30 million, meriting Mellon the annual Eclipse Award for Outstanding Breeder in 1971 and 1986. Along with Sea Hero, notable Rokeby horses include Arts and Letters (Horse of the Year in 1969) and Fort Marcy (Horse of the Year in 1970). Mellon also bred the great Mill Reef, who raced in England, and in 1971 was victorious in both the Epsom Derby and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Those wins, in addition to Sea Hero’s 1993 success in the Kentucky Derby made Mellon the first owner to win that grand slam of racing.
Polish Navy, Sea Hero’s sire, was by the prepotent Danzig. Danzig was twice the leading sire in the United States, and also topped the charts in Spain and the United Arab Emirates. Winning seven of twelve starts, Polish Navy retired with over $1 million in earnings and would go on to sire seventeen stakes winners. He stood at Claiborne Farm and in Japan, before eventually being retired to Old Friends, a retirement facility in Kentucky. Polish Navy passed away in 2011.
Sea Hero’s dam, Glowing Tribute, was also from an illustrious family. Her sire, Graustark, was syndicated for a record $2.4 million in 1966, an enormous sum for that time and her dam, Admiring, was a stakes winner. Glowing Tribute was herself a stakes winner and she would produce six stakes winners during her broodmare career for Rokeby Stables. Glowing Tribute was Broodmare of the Year in 1993 and widely considered one of the best broodmares of recent times. She passed away in 2004, at the age of 31.
Sea Hero was trained by Mack Miller and had a reputation for being somewhat temperamental. Miller experimented with different bitting techniques as the colt had a knack for getting his tongue over the bit, and tried running him with blinkers. Sea Hero was a sporadic winner, not breaking his maiden until his fourth start but then winning several consecutive races including the rich Champagne Stakes. An attempt at the Breeders Cup Juvenile later that year though was a disappointment, with Sea Hero finishing a fading seventh.
He went into the 1993 Kentucky Derby at odds of 13-1, and even his jockey, Jerry Bailey, didn’t think he had much of a chance. In fact, Bailey had told his wife to stay home with their young son on Derby Day, as it wasn’t likely that the horse would win. Surprising many, Sea Hero ran well, beating the favorite Prairie Bayou by 2 ½ lengths and delivering Miller, Bailey, and Mellon their first wins in the Kentucky Derby.
Sea Hero would go on to win the prestigious Travers Stakes later that year, but was retired as a four year old after failing to win another race. Despite his inconsistent record, he finished his racing career with earnings of almost $3 million. Sea Hero entered stud at Lane’s End Farm in 1995.
In 1999, Sea Hero was exported to Turkey and still stands at the Karacabey Pension Stud in Izmit, Turkey. A government-run farm, Karacabey Stud is the largest Thoroughbred breeding farm in Turkey, a country that has been quietly and successfully building a racing empire. Along with Sea Hero, the Turkish Jockey Club has acquired many American stakes winners, including several recently bought from internationally renowned Coolmore Stud. Turkey now boasts eight racetracks and seven stud farms. Karacabey Stud alone has over 800 broodmare and foaling stalls as well as a fully equipped stallion station and veterinary facility, including a laboratory, hospital, and operating room.
Sea Hero has been a good sire for Turkey, and is consistently among the top ten of their general sire and broodmare sire lists. He has produced over 200 winners, among them 15 stakes winners. In 2011, he became the oldest living winner of the Kentucky Derby.