The only Breeders' Cup race that Pat Day won't ride Saturday at Churchill Downs is the Mile.
"I'm glad," said Shug McGaughey, who trains Lure, two-time winner of the Mile and the 9-5 favorite. "I'd shiver if Pat had a horse in there. Nobody rides a horse better at Churchill than Pat, and I don't know if anybody ever will ride better here.
"The other day, just talking, somebody turned to me and said, 'Pat Day might be the greatest rider that ever lived.' I
thought a second and said: 'You just might be right.' "
Even without a mount in the Mile, Day is positioned to have the biggest day a Breeders' Cup jockey has ever had. In the 10-year history of the series, eight jockeys, including Day, have had two-victory days. Eddie Delahoussaye and Pat Valenzuela have each had a pair of two-victory days. But nobody has won three in one day.
So enter Pat Day, stage right, with these hot mounts for Saturday: Tabasco Cat in the Classic; Paradise Creek in the Turf; Heavenly Prize in the Distaff; American Chance in the Sprint; Timber Country in the Juvenile and Flanders in the Juvenile Fillies. All but Heavenly Prize and American Chance are favored.
"If I'm not the envy of the other jockeys, then it's because they don't know where I'm at," Day said. "It's not totally unrealistic that I could win five or six races."
Such an output would be a Breeders' Cup record, but for Day to win that many races in one day at Churchill Downs would be old hat. Day has won more than 1,400 races at the Kentucky Derby track, including the Derby itself with Lil E. Tee in 1992.
A distant second to Day in the Churchill career standings is the retired Don Brumfield, who won 925. Day, who won the first of 20 Churchill riding titles in 1980, has won five races in one day there 13 times. He has had three six-victory days. And he's the only jockey in Churchill Downs history with a seven-victory day, having achieved that with eight mounts on a June afternoon in 1984.
Several years ago, Churchill Downs tried a summer racing program. For lack of business, it was quickly abandoned and the historic track returned to the traditional meets in the spring and fall. Hot, humid weather was listed as one of the reasons for summer racing not catching on, but McGaughey has a different theory.
"Pat Day was one of the culprits," McGaughey said. "There were short fields and he'd usually be riding an odds-on favorite. He won so many races that he didn't give the gamblers a chance."
Day has won more than 6,000 races and his mounts have earned more than $144 million. He was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1991. Wayne Lukas, who trains Tabasco Cat, Timber Country and Flanders, calls Day "Baby Hands." McGaughey, who trains Heavenly Prize, cites Day's soft touch and his patience with horses as the 41-year-old jockey's most important tools.
"He gets horses to relax," McGaughey said. "It's a tribute to Pat that young jockeys around here are starting to look like him on a horse. I think he does so well at Churchill because he's mastered the stretch turn. It's a quick turn, and a lot of the riders will spray out when they make it. Pat just waits for room to open up on the inside, which it usually does, and then he's able to cut the corner."
Day has won six Breeders' Cup races and ranks behind Laffit Pincay and Eddie Delahoussaye with seven apiece, but he's actually in a small Breeders' Cup slump. He last won with Dance Smartly in 1991, and he has missed with his last 16 Breeders' Cup mounts.
The losing streak is most likely to end Saturday with either Paradise Creek, the 8-5 favorite in the Turf, or Flanders, at 6-5 with her entrymate, Cat Appeal, in the Juvenile Fillies.
Even Pat Eddery, the top English jockey who rides the filly Bolas in the Turf, figures that Day has a pat hand with Paradise Creek. Day has ridden the 5-year-old in his last six starts and they have put together five victories and a second.
"He's a kind horse," Day said. "He relaxes and he's got a nice fluid stride. I can't be higher on a horse than I am on this one. He was awesome in the Arlington Million, then he honed those skills in the Washington D.C. International, and I'm looking for something similar from him Saturday. He's running a mile and a half for the first time, but I don't think the distance will be a problem."
Flanders has finished first in all four of her races, although one of them is in dispute because of a positive postrace test for an illegal drug. A second test, from a laboratory Lukas commissioned, was negative. In Flanders' last start, she won the Frizette at Belmont Park by 21 lengths.
"I knew she was special the first time I got on her," Day said. "She won that last race effortlessly. She's very quick out of the gate, and I only had to mildly encourage her. When we got to the wire, I sat up and looked back to see where the next horse was."
After a sixth-place finish in the Derby, Day won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes aboard Tabasco Cat. More recently, they have won only one of four starts, and finished fourth in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont last month.
"He was high on himself in the post parade, which is uncharacteristic," Day said. "Then he was a touch on the aggressive side early. Maybe because of his antics in the post parade, he had nothing left for the finish. He got beat by just 3 1/2 lengths, and it wasn't his best effort."
Day's first Breeders' Cup victory, aboard the 31-1 shot Wild Again in the 1984 Classic at Hollywood Park, is the one he cherishes most.
"The Wild Again race catapulted me into national prominence," Day said."
And he has been there ever since.