01/30/2008 1:00AM

Luzzi finally gets his own big horse

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Mike Luzzi, 38, will be aboard Daaher in Saturday's Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

The rookie class of jockeys in 1989 included Garrett Gomez, Joe Bravo, and Corey Nakatani. At the head of the class, however, was Mike Luzzi, who won the Eclipse Award that year as the nation's leading apprentice jockey.

While Gomez, Bravo, and Nakatani may have gone on to become more high-profile riders, Luzzi has put together a solid career - he has 2,965 career victories - built on consistency and reliability with a couple of touches of Grade 1 success.

Rarely, if ever, though, has Luzzi entered a year in which he was the regular rider of a high-profile horse. Until now, that is.

Luzzi is the regular rider of Daaher, who ended his 2007 campaign with three consecutive impressive victories and launches his 4-year-old season in Saturday's Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

"I've been in this situation, maybe not with such a high-profile horse, but I've had horses to look forward to and things happened; they retired or something happened,'' Luzzi said. "I'm 38 years old and I know the ups and downs of the game.''

In February 1995, Luzzi rode Da Hoss to a stakes victory in his 3-year-old debut. But he wasn't aboard by the time Da Hoss won two Breeders' Cup Miles. Luzzi rode Saint Liam to a second-level allowance win in December 2003, 22 months before the colt won the Breeders' Cup Classic with Jerry Bailey and became Horse of the Year.

In 2006, Luzzi got to ride Spun Sugar four times, guiding her to a pair of Grade 1 victories. Coincidentally, Spun Sugar is a full sister to Daaher, a son of Awesome Again owned by Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Stable.

"He rides a good race, turf or dirt,'' Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Daaher, said of Luzzi. "A couple of years ago, [Bill] Mott was using him and I always thought he was an underrated rider.''

Luzzi first climbed aboard Daaher last July 15 for the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie after Alan Garcia surrendered the mount. Daaher finished third in the Prince of Wales, running a bit greenly. As soon as he jumped off the colt, Luzzi told McLaughlin that Daaher would benefit from blinkers.

McLaughlin took Luzzi's advice and put blinkers on, and retained Luzzi for a first-level allowance race at Saratoga on Aug. 26. After Daaher cleared the field from the outside and ran four furlongs in 46.75 seconds, McLaughlin was upset.

"I was cussin' at the half-mile pole," McLaughlin said. "It looked like a runoff.''

But after Daaher kept on going, running 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.56 and winning by 13 3/4 lengths, McLaughlin thought, "This horse might be for real.''

Daaher proved that in the Grade 2 Jerome, where he dueled outside the speedy Digger, then rolled through the lane to a 2 1/4-length victory.

After opting to skip the BC Dirt Mile, McLaughlin pointed Daaher to the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, where he would face Midnight Lute, who demonstrated a devastating late kick winning the BC Sprint.

Luzzi said he went into the Cigar extremely confident. After dueling inside of Xchanger through a half-mile in 46.32 seconds, Daaher had to brace for a challenge from Midnight Lute. Daaher ran away from him turning for home, winning by 2 1/2 lengths while running a mile in 1:33.79.

"I loved him in the Cigar Mile,'' Luzzi said. "They were making the other horse favorite so there was no pressure on us, you could ride the race you wanted to, and it worked out.''

The Jerome and Cigar were mile races run around one turn. The Donn is 1 1/8 miles run around two turns. Sure, Daaher handled that in Saratoga, but that was an allowance race.

"For as fast as he goes, I got horse left turning for home and at the eighth pole he's still running underneath me,'' Luzzi said. "I think we'll probably learn, too, what he is.''

Luzzi came to New York in 1994 and never left, unlike his fellow Maryland colleagues such as Kent Desormeaux and Edgar Prado, who winter in Florida.

"My thinking of staying here in the winter is I got young children in school and I'm not willing to take them out of school,'' said Luzzi, whose son, Lane, is 10 and daughter, Larue, is 7. "I think I sacrifice a little, but I see my family every day. I take my kids to school, which I think is important. . . . I think I'm enjoying a good career and a good family life as well.''

Luzzi is planning on taking the family to Florida for the Donn. A good performance could earn Daaher and Luzzi a trip to Dubai for the $6 million Dubai World Cup. McLaughlin has already made sure that Luzzi and his wife, Tania, have passports.

"He's pretty loyal,'' Luzzi said. "We talk all the time. Kiaran finds jocks to fit the horses. I think he found a horse and a jockey that fit each other.''

Nearly 20 years into his career, Luzzi may have found his once-in-a-lifetime horse.