02/06/2004 1:00AM

Day makes a rare comeback


ARCADIA, Calif. - It had been more than two months since Pat Day had last sat on the back of a racehorse. He was ready to go, fit and fully recovered from shoulder surgery and anxious to get back in the groove.

Still, Day thought he might be just a little rusty. After all, two months is two months, and riding a Thoroughbred requires the reflexes of a fighter pilot, or a New York City cab driver. Never mind those other 39,353 horses Day had been aboard during his Hall of Fame career. At the age of 50, even the sharpest muscle memory can go dull after 70 days.

Day picked the right kind of horse for his comeback, though. Perfect Story was favored at 2-1 in Gulfstream's fifth race Thursday, an allowance event at 1 1/16 miles on the main track. All she had to do was run her race and Day could chalk up winner number 8,606 in a career that began 31 years ago.

So the flag went up, the bell rang, the gates crashed open, and Day broke like a shot. Unfortunately, Perfect Story never moved.

It was a strange sight via satellite, from 3,000 miles away, and it must have been a real jaw-dropper in person. Day's perspective was particularly surreal.

"She just stood there," he said the next morning from his Florida winter home. "I nearly jumped out in front of her. I thought she was sitting on go. I pushed off, and all of a sudden I'm looking out over her head."

Perfect Story eventually left the barrier, and Day's comeback was under way, although you can draw a line through the race. Later in the afternoon, Day had a more satisfying experience with the old gray battler With Anticipation, who made a comeback of his own by finishing a solid third in a one-mile allowance on the grass.

"The old bones are feeling good," Day said. "Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. Fifty is certainly not the same as being 30, but I've been on a pretty good conditioning program."

Day submitted to rotator cuff surgery on Dec. 1. His right shoulder had been troubling him for some time, most noticeably when he slept.

"It progressed to a point where I could only sleep on my left side with my right arm completely parallel to my body," he said. "But even then, if I moved just a little, the arm would move and it would torque that shoulder, and then wake me up. I knew it wasn't going to get any better."

While rotator cuff tears are more commonly associated with pitchers and tennis players, jockeys can damage a shoulder in any number of ways.

"I broke my collarbone on that side 25 years ago," Day said, "and I've rattled both shoulders pretty good coming out of the gate a number of times. But I really couldn't pinpoint one thing that happened. This was just wear and tear."

Or perhaps excessive use of the right-handed whip? Day, notoriously conservative with the stick, laughed and quoted his agent, Doc Danner:

"You never use your right hand anyway," Danner told his rider. "I don't know what you need it for." Agent humor.

Day is the first to admit that he has led a charmed life in terms of injuries. In a career that began in 1973, he has gone this long without riding only once, when he spent two months with his mother following the death of his father in 1986.

With a career relatively free of major injuries, Day concedes he is the exception to the rule. He looks around at oft-injured colleagues and marvels at his own good fortune.

"It's been a godsend, and contributed greatly to my success," he said. "But you know, I'm not sure, but what it might have a lot to do with is how we fall.

"I endeavored to be a bull rider, bareback rider, rodeo kind of guy before I came to the racetrack," Day said. "I was never very adept at it, so consequently I was getting bucked off more than I was staying on. And in bull riding, when you hit the ground you'd better get up and running, because they're fixing to come after you.

"That probably has aided me to some extent, because I learned how to fall," he added. "When I'm coming off, I don't brace myself. I just tuck and roll. I'm convinced that I've walked away from numerous spills because of that."

With the recent retirements of Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay, and Eddie Delahoussaye, as well as Jerry Bailey's hints that he is, at most, two years from the end of his remarkable career, Day's return at age 50 goes against the grain. Of course, riding horses like With Anticipation and Travers winner Ten Most Wanted help keep the flame burning.

"There was a time, some years ago, I was agonizing over the thoughts of retirement," Day said. "I trust that I'll be involved in ministry, in some sort of fashion, but I was worried about preparing for that day, taking correspondence courses and the like.

"With my wife's help, I came to understand that when I get what I call the nod from God, I'll know it's time," Day added. "Right now, I'm confident this is still where He wants me to be. Of course, that could change by sundown."