11/10/2005 12:00AM

Love him or not, you won't forget him

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There isn't a single horseplayer in the city of Louisville who has never uttered something like this: "Whenever I bet on Pat Day, you can't find him with a search warrant. And whenever I bet against him, there he is, right down my throat."

Or, at least I've never met one.

Make no mistake - the legacy of Pat Day is assured. Day, who retired in early August after 32 years of riding, long ago sealed his place as one of the game's great jockeys.

But Day's retirement brought no wailing or gnashing of teeth from the everyday fans who have grimly endured his omnipotence for more than two decades. Horseplayers who were uneasy with the lopsided advantage that Day brought to the jockeys' rooms at Churchill Downs, Keeneland, and Oaklawn Park may not be squealing with joy that he has retired, but they are certainly relieved. Day's superiority skewed the toteboard odds - and, along with that, the judgment of bettors - to the extent that he frequently made wagering an exercise in frustration and futility.

Having covered Day as a reporter for much of the last 13-plus years - shifting my beat, as he did, from Oaklawn and Gulfstream in 1996 while also working the Churchill and Keeneland meets - there were many opportunities to ask Day about his relationship with the betting public. But I asked only once, at Oaklawn in the mid-1990's, and when I did, he grimaced. He said something like: "I can't help that there is betting on these races. I don't bet, I don't like gambling, and I have great misgivings that people are out here betting money they probably can't afford to lose. But obviously it's something I can't change, so all I can do is try my best every race."

Day is not the first jockey to cast a shadow so huge that bettors develop a love-hate relationship with him. To varying degrees, New York racing has had similar situations with Angel Cordero Jr., then Jerry Bailey, and now John Velazquez. Russell Baze has presented the same kind of mixed bag to northern California horseplayers. And the most one-sided jockey colony I ever saw was in Maryland during the 3 1/2 years (1986-89) that Kent Desormeaux spent there before leaving for Southern California.

As much weight as Day carried - figuratively, of course, as his stature as a natural lightweight was one of many contributing factors to his greatness - in Kentucky and other Midwest sites, he did not make as big an impact when riding elsewhere, most notably at Saratoga and Gulfstream.

Indeed, Day often came under harsh criticism from hard-bitten fans away from the more comfortable surroundings of his home tracks - especially when he wasn't winning as often when riding against other elite jockeys. Those fans believed Day was overrated because he usually competed against inferior riders in the Midwest. They mocked the moniker of "Patient Pat," construing his nonaggressive style as a brand of weakness and a sublime disdain for the wagering public. They resented that he was the jockey who rode "New York's" Easy Goer when the colt was beaten in three of four races by his arch rival, Sunday Silence, blaming Day's sit-still tendencies for those bitter defeats. They raised their eyebrows when the subject of Day's record in the Kentucky Derby was mentioned: 22 mounts, one solitary win. And from a purely personal standpoint, many fans thought it was just plain wrong of Day to wear his Christianity on his sleeve.

Still, even the most bitter critic would probably concede that Day brought good things to racing's table.

His accomplishments speak for themselves. He is the all-time earnings leader with nearly $300 million in purses. He won 8,803 races, fourth most. He is in the Hall of Fame. He won the Eclipse Award for top jockey four times. He holds virtually every major record at tracks where he rode regularly. He won nine Triple Crown events. He won 12 Breeders' Cup races, including that unforgettable ride on longshot Wild Again in the inaugural BC Classic in 1984.

Yet aside from all that great stuff, Day has been a gentleman in the truest sense of the word, showing politeness and patience to horsemen, fans, officials, media - everyone. He has made innumerable public appearances on behalf of the racing industry, which upheld him as a shining example of what was good in the game. I saw countless opportunities for him to knock someone, to lose his temper, to do something outlandish, or stray from his straitlaced persona, but it never happened. His personal discipline is uncanny.

But perhaps most importantly, the untold amount of time and effort he has spent on behalf of less fortunate people - notably his work with terminally ill children, which is enough to make a grown man cry - is not some puffed-up public-relations scam. It's real - and more than you will ever know.

Years from now, when racing fans are hanging around the paddock at Churchill, recalling the feats of Pat Day, they may tend to exaggerate what he accomplished. That is what legends do to people. They will remember Day's aura and how he made them feel. Heck, they might even start missing him.