LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For what seemed like forever, Pat Day owned Churchill Downs. In 2006, the year after he retired, a bronze statue of the intensely religious Day, arms raised toward heaven, was unveiled near its paddock.
In 33 seasons, Day set records that still stand 11 years since his final ride. Defying time and inflation, his $297.9 million in purse earnings on all tracks remain No. 1. His 2,482 victories at Churchill more than double those of runner-up Calvin Borel. His 8,803 career wins rank fourth. In 1991, Day was elected to the Hall of Fame without the one achievement that meant most to him: finishing first in the Kentucky Derby.
The peak experience came the next spring with 16-1 shot Lil E. Tee, redeeming the disappointment and criticism Day endured after coming in second on standouts Forty Niner (1988), Easy Goer (1989) and Summer Squall (1990). Day, 63, knows that if he’d never had a mount draped with the garland of roses, his great career would have been incomplete.
“Oh, absolutely,” Day said recently. “That one was head and shoulders over the others. It was the highlight of my racing career, that’s for sure. There’s only one Kentucky Derby.”
For every Mario Gutierrez, who is 2-for-2 in the Derby, there are so many talented riders who never come close to winning it. Many will be trying in Saturday’s 143rd edition, in which only six jockeys — Victor Espinoza, Kent Desormeaux, John Velazquez, Mike Smith, Joel Rosario and Gutierrez — know how Day felt 25 years ago. Espinoza and Desormeaux each has three trophies, and Smith, Rosario and Velazquez one.
“I’d said leading up to the Derby of 1992 that I’d felt there was a Derby out there with my name on it,” Day said. “I didn’t know when and where that would come about. I thought I had an idea of what it would feel like, but when Lil E. Tee made the lead and it was apparent we were going to win, the feeling started down in the pit of my stomach, and as he neared the finish line, it just erupted.”
A sentimental favorite to make the breakthrough is Javier Castellano, whom many consider North America’s best rider. He won the last four consecutive Eclipse Awards, equaling Jerry Bailey’s streak and matching Day’s career total. Like Bailey was, Castellano, 39, is a pathfinder with a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Trainer Tom Amoss salutes Castellano’s talent and preparation. “Castellano knows what your horse can do and what everyone else’s horses in the race can do,” Amoss said on TVG. “He studies the form constantly.”
All of his skill and savvy haven’t helped Castellano in the Derby, in which he’s 0-for-10. His best finish was fourth on Normandy Invasion in 2013, when he drew fire for making a premature move on a sloppy track.
He’ll be on deep closer Gunnevera for a fellow Venezuelan, trainer Antonio Sano. The pace should be quick enough to set up Gunnevera’s late move, and he’s a juicy 15-1 in the morning line. “He’s the kind of horse where you have to make one run,” Castellano said. “If you try to chase the pace with him, he can’t finish.”
Julien Leparoux, who will ride 4-1 morning-line favorite Classic Empire, is 0-for-9. The 33-year-old transplanted Frenchman has been no factor on Derby Day, finishing fifth twice.
“Winning it is a dream for every jockey,” Leparoux told America’s Best Racing. “What would it mean? I don’t know. I hope I find out this year.”
Day never will forget the rush of his only Derby win in 22 tries.
“It’s just indescribable,’’ he said. “If you ask any jockey, or anyone in horse racing, ‘What race would you like to win?’ I think they would say very quickly, the Kentucky Derby.”
Always have, always will.