05/31/2001 12:00AM

Of 8,000, one that stands out

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Pat Day was still one winner shy of the 8,000 mark late Thursday morning when he was asked to sort through the 7,999 he already had on the books and come up with the one that meant the most.

There were plenty from which to choose. He could have gone way back to July 29, 1973, at Prescott Downs in northern Arizona and a horse called Forblunged. That was his first winner. The purse was $631.

No one would have argued had he chosen his victory aboard Lil E. Tee in the 1992 Kentucky Derby, especially after his second-place finishes in 1988, 1989, and 1990. Or he might have settled on that sweet Belmont Stakes of 1989, when Day and Easy Goer finally shook free of Sunday Silence and stood alone in the spotlight.

For that matter, Day certainly could have cited any one of those record eight winners he rode on a single day at Arlington Park on Sept. 14, 1989, or perhaps his third straight Preakness victory aboard Louis Quatorze in 1996.

And then there was that October afternoon in 1976 at Belmont Park, when a 22-year-old kid from a small town in northeast Colorado first tasted a big city stakes win aboard Artfully in a division of the Maskette. That was a pretty good day.

But as a watershed moment, as a race that meant more than all the other headlines and dollar signs combined, nothing in the career of Patrick Alan Day compares with the Breeders' Cup Classic of Nov. 10, 1984, at Hollywood Park.

"That's the race that took my career to the next level," Day said. "I can recall the race jump for jump in a heartbeat." And he proceeded to prove it by reciting a blow-by-blow account of Wild Again's amazing victory over Slew o' Gold and Gate Dancer at odds of 31-1. "I don't know that I've ever had any horse try harder than he did the last quarter of a mile, given how tired he was, and the circumstances of the race," Day said. "But he ran almost as if he understood that his people had so much confidence in him that they'd put up $360,000 to make him eligible to participate. He wasn't about to let them down."

Some things seem meant to be. On the overnight for that inaugural Classic, Wild Again was listed without a rider, and Day was open in the race.

"When the overnight came out, I left the jocks' room to have Vincent Timphony and Bill Allen paged to secure the mount," Day said, referring to Wild Again's trainer and managing owner. "Just as I did, they were coming in to find me. There's no doubt in my mind it was divinely orchestrated."

By now the racing world has grown accustomed to Day's steady beat of born-again Christian witnessing. He makes no apologies about his faith, even in the face of a world populated by billions of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. After all, it was the noted philosopher Homer (Simpson, that is) who once observed that prayer to a specific deity is risky because, "What if every day we're making the real God madder and madder?"

There is no dark, unruly side to the sober, straight-talking professional, husband, and father, who has been in the Hall of Fame since 1991 and risen to the presidency of The Jockeys' Guild.

It was in early 1984, however, when Day reached a personal fork in the road. He had already dealt with the demons of drug and alcohol abuse, and then - like a modern-day Saul on the road to Damascus - he found himself choosing between a life in the ministry or riding racehorses and spreading the message of his faith. For Day, the 1984 Classic was proof he had taken the right path.

"Believe me, though, when I got back on Wild Again after they made the race official, God was the farthest thing from my mind," Day said. "You think I was looking to give him the credit? Absolutely not. It was Pat Day's moment to shine. When I got back on the horse, I was going to showboat, and acknowledge the crowd."

Instead, Day lifted both his helmet and his eyes heavenward. The image became the everlasting theme of that first Breeders' Cup.

"I looked up and said. 'Thank you Jesus . . . and Wild Again.' "

Day also can thank his small, muscular frame and his good fortune with injuries for a career that has had precious few low spots.

"I feel like I've always been like a diamond in the rough," Day said. "I feel like I've been blessed with tremendous talent and ability that was always there. But obviously experience has polished that ability."

Now Day's ability has placed him in territory occupied only by Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay. He is proud of his achievement, and calls the attention over his 8,000th winner, "a way of keeping score."

In the big picture, though, Pat Day figures he has already won the game.