The year was 1989. That would be 30 years ago. The date was August 2 to be precise. It was opening day at Saratoga where a then record 30-thousand plus patrons showed up, brought by talk of a new “wonder horse.”
It would be a Saratoga year that would see the last of Angel Cordero Jr.'s record 13 riding titles and a year in which the great Secretariat, who built his resume here as a 2, would have to be put down due to laminitis at the age of 19. Could the “wonder horse” be the next Secretariat or, at a minimum, the next Derby winner?
My old CBS colleague, wordsmith Heywood Hale Broun, who earned his racing chops here as a boy, used to say that trainers and owners enjoyed Saratoga because they “will get the highest level of competition…plus it's a healthy place for horses because the waters and grass are salubrious.” He once wrote, “through the years, the colors change at Saratoga as the fortunes rise and fall. But as the seconds flick by on racing's clock, time and the old course seem oddly to stand still.”
On this opening day there was a special electricity brought on by some bullet workouts by a good-looking, unraced, 2-year-old colt named Red Ransom, trained by the legendary Kentuckian MacKenzie Miller, who had his first winner here in 1953. He once told me in that smooth Kentucky drawl, “Bud, I loved Saratoga even before I got here. My father told me long before I was a horse trainer, 'You must go to Saratoga some time.'”
Up in the press box, the New York Times reported that other trainers thought the fifth race that day was “going to be the start of something big.” Rival trainer Tommy Kelly told the Times he took one look at Miller's horse in the paddock and wondered “what's a big Roberto colt doing in a five-furlong baby race? And his horse is standing under a tree and yawning, Yawning!” Said Miller, “It was a hot day and he walked for 15 minutes and never broke a sweat. It was like he was 20 years old instead of 2.”
A year later, I asked Miller about that day and all he could remember was the pressure of having a “wonder horse.” What came to mind now was not Red Ransom's calm demeanor, but that, “Everybody remarked that he was so big and fat, that he couldn't possibly be ready to run, including me. And that he was so phlegmatic.” Time often changes perceptions.
Red Ransom was owned and bred by Paul Mellon, an arts patron and scion of the Pittsburgh Mellon family, racing under the banner of Rokeby Stables, with their iconic dark gray and yellow sleeves and cap. Mellon was a longtime breeder of classic Thoroughbreds and picked the name for this baby from a favorite short story by the American writer O Henry — “The Ransom of Red Chief.” The bloodlines suggested the speed would come from the European champion Roberto and the endurance from the Belmont winner Damascus. Miller was given the colt when he was young and schooled him at his winter training center in Aiken, S.C. The whole thing had a fairy tale feel to it.
The Miller-Mellon team had been at it for quite a while, without a serious Derby contender. They were cautious with their runners, letting them loose only when they were ready. But time was beginning to be a factor if they were to pursue racing's holy grail. Miller told me, “I'm a Kentuckian and I'm supposed to want to do this, but it's a terrible routine to go through.”
Red Ransom did not disappoint that Saratoga opening day crowd, winning in a track record for five furlongs of 56.96 seconds. Another splendid performance a month later at Belmont only fed the fever. Then word of a leg injury brought the freight train to a screeching halt, though the speculation did not stop about the colt's potential greatness.
Mack Miller worked his magic and there were more bullet workouts on the road to Kentucky. Finally, after a second-place finish in a March 4 warm-up race at Gulfstream Park, Red Ransom came up lame again. And that was it — over and done, just like that, “wonder horse' no more.
The courtly Kentuckian took it hard, “I've just seen so many of them go wrong,” Miller said. “I guess you kind of get hardened to it, but the first few days it hurts like the dickens. The media does get into you and it turns out they had elected him to the Hall of Fame prematurely, I think.”
There is a happy ending to this story. Four years later, with Mellon and Miller then in the twilight of their racing days, their colt Sea Hero won the 1993 Kentucky Derby as a 13-1 longshot. Woodie Broun was at that Derby. Looking up into their box after Sea Hero crossed the finish line, he saw the two old racing warriors embrace. “There were tears in their eyes,” he told me. “I thought Mr Mellon would die of pleasure.”
Red Ransom may now be a distant memory, but Saratoga will never forget Hall of Famers Mack Miller and Paul Mellon — and Sea Hero. His bronze statue stands in its paddock.
E.S “Bud” Lamoreaux III is a creator and former executive producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. He won four Eclipse Awards for national television excellence.
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