Little guys are huge at Derby

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:41 AM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When Pat Day gets on a horse at Churchill Downs, nearly everyone in the house takes notice.

The toteboard reacts by pushing the odds on a Day mount lower.

And he gets inside the heads of other riders, who recognize his unparalleled success on racing\'s most famous strip.

Still, when Day hops aboard Ten Most Wanted tomorrow for the 129th running of the Kentucky Derby, he knows he can check that knowledge at the jockey room door.

It will be Day\'s 21st Derby mount -- and a live one at that aboard the 6-1 second choice. For all the good that will do him, Day knows it may as well be his first Run for the Roses.

\"Everything has to be focused on the horse at that point,\" Day said yesterday outside the barn of the horse he hopes to boot home for just the second Derby win of his career.

\"You have to live in the present. You better have a game plan, you better have it all worked out because you have to be focused on what\'s happening when that gate opens.\"

It is a horse race first but, arguably more than any other event in the sport, the Derby is also a jockey\'s race.

There is an ignorant element which argues the little men and women who ride these high-powered horses aren\'t athletes and are little more than passengers.

Forgetting the strength and skill needed to handle the brutes below them, there\'s much more to it than pulling on the lines and hanging on for life. Strategy is paramount especially in a pressure-packed situation like the Derby.

Jerry Bailey is the undisputed top jock in his sport, a man who can pretty much ride the pick of the litter from each new crop of equine stars.

He\'ll be on the clear favourite, Empire Maker, tomorrow and hopes he will do everything right. But Bailey hasn\'t exactly owned the Derby either, winning just twice and not since Grindstone in 1996.

\"I try to do two things,\" said Bailey, who finished 12th and 17th the past two years. \"Put my horse in a position to win and make as few mistakes as possible.

\"I think all the way through the race. Things don\'t go as planned most of the time but if you\'ve thought about multiple scenarios, you\'re not taken aback by something strange happening.\"

If there was ever an example of a jockey having more influence than the horse, it was in last year\'s Run for the Roses.

War Emblem may or may not have been the best steed in the field, but he certainly benefited from the race\'s most savvy ride.

The book on War Emblem was that he was a speed horse who would go to the lead and then disintegrate. Any one crazy enough to test the Bob Baffert trainee early would surely pay the price and go down with him. At the start, War Emblem did exactly as expected, bombing out to the front. But once the lead was established, jockey Victor Espinoza throttled down.

The rest of the jocks had convinced themselves not to get caught in the duel and effectively out-thought themselves. No one made a big move on the front-runner and when he swung for home, War Emblem had horsepower to burn.

\"Every race is different,\" Day said. \"You have to know your horse and know the situation and react accordingly.\"

Which brings us back to why the Derby may just be the toughest test for horse or rider.

Invariably, there is a field of 15 horses or more (17 are scheduled to go tomorrow) and getting good position can take as much luck as skill. There is always heavy traffic and bumping for it is almost unheard of for stewards to take down a horse because of a riding violation. Then there is the cacophony of colour and noise. The roar after the post parade and the singing of My Old Kentucky Home is a shock to all who witness it.

\"They don\'t know exactly what it is, but the horses pick up on it,\" Day said. \"Horses are very sensitive animals and they are very aware of what is going on around them.\"

So too must the man on his back.


Videos

Photos