05/09/2008 12:00AM

Bluegrass home to retiring types

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One of the undeniable advantages of a week spent covering the Kentucky Derby in Louisville is its proximity to the town of Lexington. After all, a refugee from the coast can only withstand so much unbridled pre-Derby joy before cracking like a pinata and heading for the nearest interstate.

Eastbound I-64 offers a pleasant drive at reasonable speeds - unless you get in the way of a trainer trying to make a Keeneland sale - complete with road signs that sound like characters straight out of Frank Herbert's psychedelic "Dune" saga. "Osram Sylvania" said one. "Waddy Peytona" read another. There was no Duncan Idaho.

The first stop, just north of Lexington proper, was the Kentucky Horse Park, which ended up making headlines a few days later when it was picketed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals over the Derby death of Eight Belles. No matter where the sympathies lie, you hate to see anyone so dramatically miss the target. PETA picketing the Horse Park over the issue of equine welfare is like attacking the Pentagon to protest peace talks. Someone was unclear on the concept.

For all its spacious acreage and horse show hubbub, the heart and soul of the Horse Park is the Hall of Champions. Last fall, the racing world held vigil there as John Henry reached the end of his many days. Now, he is laid to rest near the entrance, beneath a plot decorated with flowers both real and plastic, and awaiting the memorial statue that will mark his grave.

The show goes on. Headlining the Hall of Champions these days are three old soldiers with nary a whiff of Derby history among them. Cigar, who earned just shy of $10 million without competing in a Triple Crown event, has been moved into John Henry's old stall and spends an inordinate amount of time staring out of John Henry's old window, just like John. What do they see?

Across the hallway, in Cigar's former digs, the sprint champ and Breeders' Cup winner Kona Gold has been in residence since late last November. Both imposing and mild-mannered, Kona needed time to come to terms with the fact that he was no longer living the life of a sun-kissed Californian.

"The first time it snowed, he just stood out in the middle of his paddock and stared up at the sky, letting it fall on his head," said Cathy Robey, manager of the Hall of Champions. "He never did grow a winter coat, until recently. And now he can't get rid of it."

Kona Gold also has found true love. His new best pal is Da Hoss, who lives in the next stall. When they are turned out together in the same paddock, Kona Gold follows Da Hoss around like a worshipful puppy dog, nibbling at the same grass, sniffing the same breeze.

Kona Gold is 14, Da Hoss is 16, and Cigar is 18. Teenagers. The three of them are on display several times daily for visitors during the Parade of Champions, and always easy to spot as they roam their own, vast paddocks. Among them, they represent four Breeders' Cup victories and five individual Eclipse Awards. But they also embody the idea that there is life to the Thoroughbred experience, apart from the Triple Crown.

Across town from the Horse Park, on a side street in the village of Versailles, the home of Mack and Martha Miller speaks to the same theme. True enough, on prominent display in the hallway is a gold-plated horseshoe worn by Sea Hero to win the 1993 Kentucky Derby, and his portrait hangs over the mantle. But the Mack Miller resume includes three grass champions and such major dirt runners as Java Gold and Fit to Fight.

Miller, 86, retired in 1995 after a 47-year career, most of it spent training privately for Charles Englehard and then Paul Mellon. On this particular afternoon Miller could be found in his lounge chair, getting ready to watch the Kentucky Oaks telecast and apologizing for not rising at the entrance of a guest.

"I'm having trouble walking lately," said Miller, who has been battling a bad heart and circulatory ailments. "It's really starting to get me down a little. But I've promised myself I will be strong enough to walk again."

A visit with Miller is always reassuring. If horse racing can produce a man of such grace and charm, then racing must be doing something right. Miller has been a member of the Hall of Fame since 1987, somehow managing to get there before he won the Derby, and without winning the Kentucky Oaks. Sea Hero was, in fact, one of only two Derby starters for Miller.

"I don't believe I ever had much in the way of a 3-year-old filly for the Oaks," Miller said. "I did have an In Reality mare once, though, who produced a pretty nice filly. She ended up out in California. What was her name again. . . ?"

Uh, Mack, was it Lite Light?

"Why yes, of course," he replied, then lit up anew. "She did win the Oaks for that rapper, MC Hammer, didn't she?"

In 1991, as a matter of fact, which means Mack Miller is so cool he won the Kentucky Oaks without even lifting a finger.