05/15/2002 12:00AM

Staring hard at racing's Catch-22


BALTIMORE - It is two weeks later and they're still talking about the Kentucky Derby as a gift to War Emblem, unchallenged on the lead.

"It's a Catch-22 situation," says Pat Day, whose five Preakness victories place him second to Eddie Arcaro's six. "You don't have much time to decide, either. If you permit the leader to cruise just the first half-mile and then decide to be aggressive, chances are you're committing suicide."

Day recalls the spring of 1988 when he was riding Forty Niner for Woody Stephens, and he was forced to contend with a swift filly named Winning Colors.

"Forty Niner was a little anxious and much of our work, prior to the Derby, was focused on trying to settle him down," Day recalls. "We had some concern, too, about his staying the mile and a quarter. The filly had the speed and quickly went to the lead. Forty Niner stayed within hailing distance to the far turn, at which point Winning Colors opened another three or four lengths.

"We might have gone after her, but I opted to hold him together and make as strong a finish as possible. We missed by a neck."

Day notes that if Forty Niner had decided on his own to chase the filly, he might have been tempted to go along with the move. But Day emphasized that he wasn't going to ask him to do it for fear that he wouldn't have much of a finish.

Following the Derby, Forty Niner's connections discussed the classic scene and came to the conclusion that they had assisted Winning Colors's effort by not applying pressure. They reasoned that with Pimlico known as a speed-favoring track and the Preakness being a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby, it made sense to challenge the filly early.

"We drew inside of her on a track that was heavy down on the rail," Day said. "We got the lead but he faltered leaving the three-eighths pole. Winning Colors held on to be third in a race won by Risen Star. He was a good horse and many people agree that if he had a little better luck in the Derby, he could have been a Triple Crown winner."

That Preakness didn't turn out too good for Day, but his feats at Pimlico have been remarkable. He had a sensational three-year run beginning in 1994, winning with Tabasco Cat, Timber Country, and Louis Quatorze. And he came close to making it four in a row, finishing second by only half a length to Prairie Bayou in 1993 with Cherokee Run.

Day has the mount on the very rapid Booklet in the 127th Preakness, and looks forward to the assignment.

"He is a kind of cat-and-mouse horse," he said. "If he gets in front, he will attempt to maintain that position on his own. A horse will come to him. He'll run away from him. He looks like a fun horse to ride, and I believe his speed can be conserved. He is competitive by nature and if he is in a contending position at the three-sixteenths pole, he could be dangerous."