10/23/2002 11:00PM

BC Countdown -Sprint: Little guy gets chance on big horse

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - For Hall of Fame riders like Pat Day and Jerry Bailey, Saturday is just another Breeders' Cup Day. For Harry Vega, it is the opportunity of a lifetime.

Vega, 37, will get his first Breeders' Cup mount aboard Eclipse Award winner Xtra Heat for trainer John Salzman in the Sprint. It will be the defining moment in a journeyman career that has spanned 19 years and includes more than 2,500 victories, though none of any national consequence until he joined forces with Xtra Heat.

Vega rode Xtra Heat for the first time last fall in Laurel Park's De Francis Memorial Dash, three weeks after she finished second to Squirtle Squirt in the 2001 Breeders' Cup Sprint. Jorge Chavez rode Xtra Heat in the 2001 Sprint, replacing her regular rider, Rick Wilson, who broke his leg a month before the Cup.

Vega didn't even know he would be riding Xtra Heat until the morning of the De Francis.

"I don't really know exactly how or why I got the mount in the first place," said Vega. "All I knew is that I was on a list of riders being considered to ride her in the De Francis. I had won a few races for Mr. Salzman in New Jersey and was getting on some horses for him at the time. I came into the barn the morning of the De Francis, same as I did every other morning, and he told me I'd be riding Xtra Heat that afternoon."

"Harry was in the right place at the right time," Salzman said, explaining his decision to choose Vega over some of the bigger-name riders who were seeking the mount. "He suited the horse well, and I wanted somebody I could get all the time, not on a race-to-race commitment."

Xtra Heat finished third in the De Francis after contesting a rapid pace, and Vega wondered if he would get to keep the mount.

"If they told me I'd done a bad job and that I wouldn't be riding her again, I still would have been happy to have been given the opportunity to have ridden a champion filly at least once," Vega said.

But Salzman did not blame Vega, nor did he look elsewhere for a rider when she made her next start on New Year's Day in Aqueduct's Interborough Handicap. Xtra Heat won her 2002 debut by 5 1/2 lengths under Vega, the first of seven victories, all stakes, the pair have combined for this season.

"Mr. Salzman and the owners of the filly are not the kind of people who make you question yourself or your riding, win or lose," Vega said. "They make you feel like part of the team."

Vega hasn't always been treated so kindly by owners or trainers during an up-and-down career that began at Hazel Park outside Detroit in 1983.

"I really had a rough beginning," Vega recalled. "I missed three months with a broken collarbone shortly after I started riding and lost another six months when I had the bug after breaking my leg. I moved from track to track trying to get started but struggled just about everywhere I went. I won just one race from 75 mounts as an apprentice at Monmouth Park and struggled again in New England before catching on with Dennis Brida and then John Rigattieri."

Vega was perennially among the leading riders in New England throughout the 1990's and appeared destined to be a fixture on the circuit, especially after settling down and marrying former rider Amy Duross in 1998. But his life and career path changed on Jan. 29, 2000, with the birth of his daughter, Devin.

"Devin had a rough birth," said Vega. "She wasn't breathing for 45 minutes, and it was a miracle that she even survived. Right then and there, I realized we were all living on borrowed time."

Not long afterward, Vega decided it was time to leave New England and try to take his career to the next level. "I drove to Delaware and rented an apartment for three months to give it a try," he said. "We haven't left since."

Salzman has likely been besieged with requests from more experienced Breeders' Cup jockeys to ride Xtra Heat in the Sprint, and no matter what happens on Saturday, this could be Vega's last ride aboard the filly. Salzman owns the horse in partnership with John and Kenneth Taylor, and they plan to sell her next month in the Fasig-Tipton sale at Keeneland.

"If they asked me to give up the colors to try somebody else in the Breeders' Cup, I'd understand," said Vega. "These people have treated me with nothing but the utmost respect all along, and I'd feel honored just to have had the opportunity to have ridden a filly like Xtra Heat. The fact they've put their faith in me Saturday just gives me added confidence. And while I realize winning a Breeders' Cup race could open up a lot of doors career-wise, right now all I am thinking about and concentrating on is winning this race for her. She deserves to be champion again. What happens later is out of my control."