05/12/2009 11:00PM

Battle of '89 still fresh in Day's mind

Email

"Good morning!"

The voice on the phone was chipper, full of vim, impossible to bring down. So, of course, I had to ask Pat Day about the 1989 Preakness Stakes.

"Now, you had to go and remind me of that," Day said. "I was so blessed in that race five times, and the race you've picked was not one of them."

Maybe not. But it was great theater, and celebrating the 20th anniversary of the most exciting Preakness ever run seems like the right thing to do, especially since the prospect of Rachel Alexandra making some kind of indelible history this weekend is tending to suck all the air out of the room.

In fairness, though, Rachel Alexandra will need to sing "Ritorna vincitor!" from "Aida" while thrashing Pioneerof the Nile by 10 lengths if she wants to displace the visceral memory of that distant May afternoon, when Sunday Silence and Easy Goer thrust and parried their way to an eyelash decision.

Sunday Silence, ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, got to be called the winner, but Easy Goer lost no glow. Even so, guys like Pat Day labor under a very high, self-inflicted standard of performance.

"The smaller the margin of defeat, the greater the room for second-guessing," Day said. "I'll take full responsibility for the loss. I fully believe with all my heart that had I ridden the race differently the outcome would have been different."

Day retired in 2005 as a Hall of Famer and the all-time leader in purse winnings. His list of achievements included a Kentucky Derby, three Belmonts, a dozen Breeders' Cup trophies, and four Eclipse Awards, along with those five Preakness wins, accomplished between 1985 and 1996.

He figures he lost a shot at a sixth Preakness when he made a key decision aboard Easy Goer going down the backstretch of that '89 affair. But we'll let him tell it:

"Easy Goer would not extend himself at all in the Derby," Day began. "As a result, he came into the Preakness decidedly fresh. He was a little anxious in the gate, and kind of jumped in the air at the break. Then, going into the first turn, he was tugging on me pretty good, and was right in behind Sunday Silence."

Easy Goer fans loved the sight of their hero dogging Sunday Silence so early in the race. Day, however, was trying to get his colt to relax.

"I thought, let me just ease outside Sunday Silence, give my colt his head a little bit and let him stretch his legs," Day went on. "That's when P. Val looked over and seen that good-lookin' redhead, and decided that maybe the best part of the racetrack was closer to the outside fence."

Valenzuela was race-riding Day something fierce, floating Easy Goer wide, but still it was a glorious image, the black colt and the red colt lapped on each other with nearly half the race yet to run. Then, surprisingly, Easy Goer gunned for the lead.

"That's where I made the monumental error," Day said. "I decided I'd let Easy Goer run on, get a little advantage on Sunday Silence and float him back down where he belonged. When P. Val realized what I was trying to do, he let Sunday Silence run on, trying to maintain his advantage."

Day maintains that he had no intention of putting Valenzuela in a switch, but that the inside horse, pacesetting Houston, bore out on the far turn and caused Sunday Silence to steady.

"I underestimated the recuperative powers of Sunday Silence, not realizing that his greatest asset was running the turns," Day continued. "He actually ran the turns faster than he ran the straightaways.

"So almost immediately, here was Sunday Silence, back up on the outside of me, and P. Val has got blood in his eye. Forget what the Bible says, 'Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.' He was gonna retaliate. When he hit me, he knocked me tight to the fence, a place my colt had never been before."

Day was inside the eighth pole and still thought he would win, when all of a sudden, Easy Goer hit a wall.

"He was just spent," Day said. "So at that point I decide I'm gonna take a shot. I cranked his head out in hopes that I could make contact with Sunday Silence, maintain the advantage to the wire, and then plead with the judges if there was an inquiry, since it already had been a fairly rough run last three-eighths. But bless his heart, my colt was so leg weary at that point that his head turned out, but his body didn't follow. Sunday Silence got the nod at the wire.

"In retrospect," Day concluded, "common sense should have told me that if he floats me out to the 15 hole, or however far he wants to go, he's got to be 14 wide and he's still the horse to beat. Sunday Silence would have carried me out down the backside, then changed leads and swooped around the turn. In doing so, Easy Goer would have started picking up momentum into and around the turn and had a full head of steam coming out of the turn. He would have changed leads, being on the outside, and I just know in my heart he would have run on past Sunday Silence down to the wire."

The Sunday Silence-Easy Goer debate will never die. In the end, it just might be easier to fall back on the old gunfighter's line, when asked to compare the speed of two rival pistoleros.

"I don't know," he said. "But I'd hate to have to live on the difference."