Pat day had just reached the top of the escalator leading to the jockeys' room at Churchill Downs when Jorge Velasquez, crouching in wait for his friend and fellow rider, sprang forward, grabbed the 100-pound Day around his thighs and raised him high above the ground. The air was filled with whoops and howls.
"Congratulations," said Velasquez, setting him back down. "It's about time! And don't stop now...."
"Boy, does this feel good," said Day. "All in God's good time. It feels so good, I think I'll do it again.... The longer you wait, the sweeter it tastes!"
An hour earlier, in one of the most stunning endings to the Kentucky Derby in recent memory, Day, who has won more riding titles at the Downs than any other jockey, drove a tiring Lil E. Tee down the middle of the homestretch, beating a hard tattoo on the colt's flank with a lefthanded whip, to score his first victory ever, after nine defeats, in America's most famous horse race. Moments later the tote board lit up like a circus wagon with the posting of the pari-mutuel returns. Sent off at nearly 17-1, Lil E. Tee paid $35.60 to win. He finished a length in front of a 30-1 shot, Casual Lies, who in turn was 3¼ lengths in front of a 33-1 shot, the pace-setting Dance Floor, whose owner, rap star Hammer, led a large contingent of clubhouse cheerleaders who began chanting "Go!...Go!...Go!..." as the bay colt turned for home with a length-and-a-half lead and looked momentarily like the winner.
If this parade of long shots struggling home was not shocking enough, there was the sight of the 4-5 favorite, the French horse Arazi, sweeping powerfully toward the lead midway through the final bend, looking as if he would have this bunch for dinner, then all at once flattening out at the top of the stretch and finally losing his action entirely at the [3/16], pole, where the dial suddenly read empty. Hailed as the second coming of Secretariat, off his spectacular victory in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, the diminutive chestnut with the crooked blaze on his face ran in a way that suggested he might have been either short on conditioning—he had had only one prep race, on a grass course in France, to prepare for the testing 10 furlongs of the Derby—or, perhaps, even hurting physically. Last November, four days after the Breeders' Cup, Arazi underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove spurs from his knees, and last Saturday, coming to the eighth pole, he staggered awkwardly as he switched leads from the left foreleg to the right, moving as though he was in some distress.
Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois Boutin, the colt's trainer, said afterward that Arazi's difficulties were not physical—"It wasn't a problem with his knees," he said—but rather grew out of the compressed time frame in which he was forced to prepare the colt for the race. Following the surgery Arazi had lost six weeks of training while he convalesced, and Boutin said he felt rushed this spring in bringing him back. "The problem had to do with his preparation," Boutin said. "It was too short and too quick, too much in a hurry. We wanted to do well, and we didn't have enough time. It's difficult to get a horse ready for the Kentucky Derby. We wanted to overdo things, and the horse was never relaxed. That's it. I made a mistake. I wanted to please the owners because they pushed me to do this. It was just impossible."
If Boutin harbored such fears leading up to the Kentucky Derby, he did not express them publicly, and from the moment the colt arrived in Louisville, six days before the Derby, he was the dominant presence in the stable area, attracting large crowds of turf writers and spectators when he trained on the Downs oval or walked to and from the track. Arazi was also the subject of endless debates in which the central question was whether a horse could win the toughest, most demanding of the Triple Crown races, against far more seasoned American 3-year-olds, with only one prep race behind him—and that, the Prix Omnium II, at a little less than a mile over a fairly moderate herd of French 3-year-olds.
The colt certainly did not look the part of a world-beater in Louisville. Like many offspring of his sire, the champion English miler Blushing Groom, Arazi is lean and smallish in size. In fact, his breeding led a number of European observers at the Derby to conclude that he is a miler, like his father. Indeed, he appeared to be carrying less flesh in Kentucky than he was in France on the afternoon of the Omnium on April 7, and in the days leading up to the Derby he was showing his ribs like a greyhound, looking like a horse who was under considerable pressure physically. In fact, the most imposing thing about the colt was the mystique that had grown up around him, and the aura surrounding him led to tongue-in-cheek jesting by some American horsemen. "I don't know how they can get the saddle over the wings," joked LeRoy Jolley, the Hall of Fame trainer of Conte Di Savoya (who would finish fourth in the Derby). Last Friday morning, after seeing Arazi every day and knowing the difficulties that the colt would have to overcome to win the Derby, Jolley said, "It's a situation that's building to a major-league upset."
To be sure, there was an unmistakable sense among some horsemen that Boutin, as he would later admit, was asking the impossible of the colt. "Arazi had that knee operation, and atrophy sets in while a horse is idle and recuperating," said Bruce Headley, the trainer of Derby horse Disposal (dead last on Saturday). "That's tough to overcome—the muscle atrophy. He's a wonder horse if he wins this Derby."
This year's American 3-year-olds looked weaker than those in recent memory, with few athletes among the bunch, but Arazi did not scare the best of them away. Lynn Whiting, the trainer of Lil E. Tec, had been aiming his colt toward Churchill Downs for months and early this year had cautioned Day not to abandon him for another mount. "I want you to stay on this horse," Whiting told him. "I've got a good feeling about him."
While Day has regularly been among the nation's leading riders—last year he became only the sixth jockey in history to earn more than $100 million in purses in a career—he had failed year after year to win the Kentucky Derby, the victory he coveted most dearly. In 1987 he had the choice of riding Alysheba or Demons Begone, the Derby favorite. Alysheba won it, under Chris McCarron, while Demons Begone bled so badly that Day had to pull him up on the backstretch. In 1990 he chose to ride Summer Squall over Unbridled in the Derby and finished second, 3½ lengths behind Unbridled at the wire. He also finished second on two other occasions—in 1988 on Forty Niner, who was beaten a diminishing neck by Winning Colors, and on the odds-on favorite, Easy Goer, who finished 2½ lengths behind Sunday Silence in 1989. A born-again Christian who broke from a life of drugs and alcohol in 1982 and eventually found religion, Day counts none of these Derby experiences as disappointments: "In January of '84 I committed my life to Christ, and I haven't had any disappointments since then. If I win, praise God; if I lose, praise God...."
He simply waited for the day to come. "Time and time again I thought there was a Derby with my name on it somewhere," he says. And, yes, Day did stay with Lil E. Tee and Whiting this season. On March 28 Day rode the colt to a one-length victory in the Jim Beam Stakes, and in the Arkansas Derby on April 18, Pine Bluff beat Lil E. Tee just a neck. Off that, Whiting shipped him to Churchill Downs. "I just thought he deserved another chance," the trainer said.
It was expected that if Arazi failed to fire, this Derby would be a wildly competitive affair, particularly after the second choice in the field, Santa Anita Derby winner A.P. Indy, suffered a stone bruise to a hoof on the eve of the race and had to be scratched. Whiting sensed he had a shot, and the day before the Derby he said, "You can't draw these races up on paper. That's why you hire Pat Day instead of picking a dunce." On Saturday morning the trainer and his jockey talked at length about the field of 18 horses, and Whiting finally told the rider, "I guess you're going to have to play it by ear."
Day certainly played it well enough. Breaking from the 10 hole, Lil E. Tee and Day were in the midst of the cavalry charge for the first turn while Pat Valenzuela, with a hold on Arazi, was next to last and running wide. On the clubhouse turn the Irish horse Thyer drifted off the rail in front of Lil E. Tee, and Day had to steady a moment on Thyer's heels. "I was lucky just to stay up at that point," says Day. As they bounded down the back-stretch, past the half-mile pole, Dance Floor was setting a tepid pace—three quarters in 1:12[1/5]—when Day glanced to his right and saw Arazi dashing past him.
Last fall in the Juvenile, when Day was riding Dance Floor, Arazi had made the same explosive move, and it had carried him past Day at the same point in the race. On Saturday, Day thought he was whipped again: "I thought, Maybe I'm running for second."
Meanwhile, Arazi kept sailing past horses on his own. "Down the backside he switched to his right lead and started to run easily by horses," Valenzuela said. "Going into the last turn, I thought there was no way he was going to get beat."
As Arazi raced past Lil E. Tee, Day eased his mount behind him, into Arazi's hoofprints, and chased him around the turn. "It looked like Pat had his feet on the dashboard," said Day. "But he didn't get totally out of my sights." Midway of the last turn, Day started nudging on his colt. "He was picking it up, and Arazi still hadn't spurted away from us," he said. By the top of the stretch, Arazi's move had carried him from 17th place to third—he had made up nearly 14 lengths on the leaders—but Lil E. Tee was only two behind him. Dance Floor swept past the quarter pole through a mile in 1:37⅗ buggy-horse time, and all Arazi needed was to sleepwalk through a final quarter in 26 seconds to win it.
Valenzuela asked him for the gas, but there was too little left for Arazi to make a race of it. Day pressed on, passing tired horses, caught Casual Lies just past the eighth pole and rode with a fury to the wire. Arazi drifted back to end up eighth, beaten by about eight lengths. After dismounting, Valenzuela, looking bewildered through a face caked in sand, said to one of Arazi's handlers, "I asked him to run the last quarter, and he couldn't keep up with them." The final time, on a track listed as fast, was 2:04, the lamest Derby clocking in 18 years.
It was enough to get Day home—finally. With a group of other jockeys, the rider had visited Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville on the day before the race, and one of the kids they met was Todd Hawkins, an eight-year-old leukemia patient. Day promised the boy that he would wear a cap with the name of the hospital on it into the winner's circle after the Derby. So there was Day, riding Lil E. Tee into the enclosure and looking like a house painter who had taken the day off to ride in the Derby. The most popular jockey in the history of Churchill Downs, Day was greeted everywhere with high fives and bear hugs as he made his way through the grandstand after the race. After all those years of failing on Cadillacs, he got there at last on a Volkswagen bus.
An hour and a half after the race, Day wrapped a towel around himself in the jock's room and took a deep breath. "I better go take a cold shower and wake up," he said. "I must be dreaming."
Arazi (far left) looked good on the turn for home, but Lil E. Tee (shadow roll) was right behind and ready to pounce.
On the turn for home, Day and Lil E. Tee (far right) circled Arazi and shot for the wire.
Lil E. Tee, with Casual Lies a length behind at the finish line, paid off at an inspiring 17-1.
To celebrate his first Kentucky Derby win, Day jumped for joy in the winner's circle.