Pat day had just reached the top of the escalator leading to the jockeys' room at Churchill Downs when Jorge Velasquez, crouching in wait for his friend and fellow rider, sprang forward, grabbed the 100-pound Day around his thighs and raised him high above the ground. The air was filled with whoops and howls.
"Congratulations," said Velasquez, setting him back down. "It's about time! And don't stop now...."
"Boy, does this feel good," said Day. "All in God's good time. It feels so good, I think I'll do it again.... The longer you wait, the sweeter it tastes!"
An hour earlier, in one of the most stunning endings to the Kentucky Derby in recent memory, Day, who has won more riding titles at the Downs than any other jockey, drove a tiring Lil E. Tee down the middle of the homestretch, beating a hard tattoo on the colt's flank with a lefthanded whip, to score his first victory ever, after nine defeats, in America's most famous horse race. Moments later the tote board lit up like a circus wagon with the posting of the pari-mutuel returns. Sent off at nearly 17-1, Lil E. Tee paid $35.60 to win. He finished a length in front of a 30-1 shot, Casual Lies, who in turn was 3� lengths in front of a 33-1 shot, the pace-setting Dance Floor, whose owner, rap star Hammer, led a large contingent of clubhouse cheerleaders who began chanting "Go!...Go!...Go!..." as the bay colt turned for home with a length-and-a-half lead and looked momentarily like the winner.
If this parade of long shots struggling home was not shocking enough, there was the sight of the 4-5 favorite, the French horse Arazi, sweeping powerfully toward the lead midway through the final bend, looking as if he would have this bunch for dinner, then all at once flattening out at the top of the stretch and finally losing his action entirely at the [3/16], pole, where the dial suddenly read empty. Hailed as the second coming of Secretariat, off his spectacular victory in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, the diminutive chestnut with the crooked blaze on his face ran in a way that suggested he might have been either short on conditioning—he had had only one prep race, on a grass course in France, to prepare for the testing 10 furlongs of the Derby—or, perhaps, even hurting physically. Last November, four days after the Breeders' Cup, Arazi underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove spurs from his knees, and last Saturday, coming to the eighth pole, he staggered awkwardly as he switched leads from the left foreleg to the right, moving as though he was in some distress.
Fran�ois Boutin, the colt's trainer, said afterward that Arazi's difficulties were not physical—"It wasn't a problem with his knees," he said—but rather grew out of the compressed time frame in which he was forced to prepare the colt for the race. Following the surgery Arazi had lost six weeks of training while he convalesced, and Boutin said he felt rushed this spring in bringing him back. "The problem had to do with his preparation," Boutin said. "It was too short and too quick, too much in a hurry. We wanted to do well, and we didn't have enough time. It's difficult to get a horse ready for the Kentucky Derby. We wanted to overdo things, and the horse was never relaxed. That's it. I made a mistake. I wanted to please the owners because they pushed me to do this. It was just impossible."
If Boutin harbored such fears leading up to the Kentucky Derby, he did not express them publicly, and from the moment the colt arrived in Louisville, six days before the Derby, he was the dominant presence in the stable area, attracting large crowds of turf writers and spectators when he trained on the Downs oval or walked to and from the track. Arazi was also the subject of endless debates in which the central question was whether a horse could win the toughest, most demanding of the Triple Crown races, against far more seasoned American 3-year-olds, with only one prep race behind him—and that, the Prix Omnium II, at a little less than a mile over a fairly moderate herd of French 3-year-olds.
The colt certainly did not look the part of a world-beater in Louisville. Like many offspring of his sire, the champion English miler Blushing Groom, Arazi is lean and smallish in size. In fact, his breeding led a number of European observers at the Derby to conclude that he is a miler, like his father. Indeed, he appeared to be carrying less flesh in Kentucky than he was in France on the afternoon of the Omnium on April 7, and in the days leading up to the Derby he was showing his ribs like a greyhound, looking like a horse who was under considerable pressure physically. In fact, the most imposing thing about the colt was the mystique that had grown up around him, and the aura surrounding him led to tongue-in-cheek jesting by some American horsemen. "I don't know how they can get the saddle over the wings," joked LeRoy Jolley, the Hall of Fame trainer of Conte Di Savoya (who would finish fourth in the Derby). Last Friday morning, after seeing Arazi every day and knowing the difficulties that the colt would have to overcome to win the Derby, Jolley said, "It's a situation that's building to a major-league upset."
To be sure, there was an unmistakable sense among some horsemen that Boutin, as he would later admit, was asking the impossible of the colt. "Arazi had that knee operation, and atrophy sets in while a horse is idle and recuperating," said Bruce Headley, the trainer of Derby horse Disposal (dead last on Saturday). "That's tough to overcome—the muscle atrophy. He's a wonder horse if he wins this Derby."
This year's American 3-year-olds looked weaker than those in recent memory, with few athletes among the bunch, but Arazi did not scare the best of them away. Lynn Whiting, the trainer of Lil E. Tec, had been aiming his colt toward Churchill Downs for months and early this year had cautioned Day not to abandon him for another mount. "I want you to stay on this horse," Whiting told him. "I've got a good feeling about him."