Saturday, May 04, 2002

SULLIVAN: From Buddha to Burner

It's all in Day's work

By Tim Sullivan,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE — Strange day for Pat Day. Knocked from the Kentucky Derby at dawn, the eminent jockey was back in the saddle in time for lunch.

        Leading riders lead an accordion-like existence, full of rapid deflations and curious key changes. For a few hours Friday morning, Day's record streak of 18 straight Derby mounts was ostensibly over, ended by the sudden scratch of the formidable Buddha. But soon Day was back, reprieved by another's injury, restored to racing's premier event on the dubious legs of long shot Blue Burner.

        His emotions were as mixed as the contents of a bartender's blender. His relief at having a ride was muted by his disappointment over lost legitimacy. Buddha, the Wood Memorial winner, had been a 5-1 choice in the morning line. Blue Burner ran fifth in the Wood and was 30-1 for the Derby.

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        “It's a great game,” Day said of racing, “but it's a heartbreaker. It's chicken and feathers — chicken one day and feathers the next.”

        Pat Day fluctuates more frequently between steak and lobster, but his was a feathery Friday. Shortly before 5 a.m., Buddha left his stall at Churchill Downs with a pronounced limp. The initial diagnosis was uncertain — maybe a bruise, maybe more — but the danger was clear. No well-bred horseman knowingly imperils an injured horse, even on the first Saturday of May.

        When Buddha was scratched, Day was temporarily deprived a place in the race he most reveres. He was the picture of pathos as he left the patient in Barn 48 around 9a.m., a crestfallen figure in a Buddha baseball cap.

        “I couldn't have been more confident,” Day said, standing beside his BMW convertible. “He (Buddha) really got my attention when I had the opportunity to ride him in the Wood. He had as good a chance as any (in the Derby), and better than most.

        “I've never had this happen to me. It's my greatest Derby disappointment. The others, at least, made it to the starting gate.”

        Day's period of mourning did not figure to survive the afternoon. He is a man of considerable faith and a rider of consummate skill. As a former Derby winner (1992, Lil E. Tee) and the leading rider in Churchill Downs history, Pat Day's presence on the sidelines posed a tangible threat to every inexperienced jockey in the race.

        While bumping a rider from a Derby mount one day before the race would have been considered a breach of etiquette, racing can be a pretty cold-blooded business.

        “There'll be some people probably tempted (to use Day),” said D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of four Derby winners. “But I think, just ethically, they'd be reluctant to do that. That would be a tremendous slap in the face to the guy they took off. Wow.”

        Happily, Day found a horse without humiliating any of his peers. Corey Nakatani, who suffered a slight concussion Thursday in a spill at Hollywood Park, was advised against travel Friday morning. This cleared the seat aboard Blue Burner.

        Blue Burner isn't Buddha, but Buddha is no longer available.

        “There's nothing that will take away that disappointment,” Day said. “But I'm excited and encouraged by this opportunity.”

        What else could he say? When confronted with feathers, the seasoned jockey must show his pluck.


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