ARCADIA, Calif. -- Pat Day would arrive at the barn unannounced for his regular visit with the filly. He would slip into her stall quietly, as if looking in on a close friend's child. Those visits last summer at Saratoga forged a bond between the Hall of Fame jockey and the promising filly Surfside that remained strong through winter into spring.
Today, rider and filly must draw deeply from that relationship if they're to accomplish that rare feat in their sport: win a horse race against colts.
After four straight victories against fillies, Surfside will race against males for the first time in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby here at Santa Anita Park.
As the only million-dollar prep for the Kentucky Derby, the Santa Anita Derby attracted six of the country's top 3-year-olds. It would surprise no one at this Southern California track if all six turned up four weeks from now in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
But only one could capture the imagination of the public, especially the segment that doesn't closely follow the sport. That would be Surfside. And she would do it just as she did it with Day: A regal pedigree that produced a dazzling race record.
Surfside is the first foal of Flanders, winner of the 1994 Eclipse award as top 2-year-old filly. With Day as her jockey, Flanders finished first in each of her five races. She was disqualified in Belmont Park's Matron Stakes for a drug positive New York officials said probably did not affect her performance.
Flanders' final victory that year, also the last of her career, was the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs. After a dramatic stretch battle with Serena's Song in which Flanders lost the lead and regained it just before the wire, the courageous Flanders pulled up with a broken leg.
She was retired. In a classic case of breeding the best to the best and hoping for the best, Flanders was mated in 1996 with Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner. On Jan. 21, 1997, Surfside was born.
One of her biggest fans from the beginning was Day. When the 2-year-old Surfside arrived last summer at the Saratoga barn of the trainer D. Wayne Lukas, Day became a regular visitor.
"I felt a real closeness to her just because of my association with her mother," Day said. "And she's a big, grand-looking filly we anticipated would be a nice one. She's got a neat personality, and it was nice just hanging out with her."
Day would lean against the filly and stroke her. Day nuzzled her, and Surfside nuzzled him back.
"She had that look in her eye," Day said. "She had all the right equipment and the right disposition and attitude to go with it. And then I started riding her, and I was even more impressed."
Day has ridden Surfside in each of her nine races. Seven were victories. The other two were a second and a third. Of the six entrants in the Santa Anita Derby, she is the only millionaire, having earned $1,040,230.
Her past two races, however, have cast doubt on her ability to beat colts. She won both by less than a length after winning her previous two by seven and eight lengths.
To increase her concentration, Lukas has added blinkers for the Santa Anita Derby. He also will put Surfside back on the diuretic Lasix after running her the last race without it.
Although the changes suggest that Lukas is not satisfied with the filly's recent performances, he cautioned against reading too much into them or her dwindling margins of victory.
"It's like a layup in basketball," said Lukas, a former high school and college basketball coach. "You can lay it up easily and get two points. Or you can do a 360 and slam it down into the basket and still get two points."
Lukas said the most difficult task for a trainer is preparing horses for races on the way to a larger goal. In Surfside's case, the goal since fall has been the Kentucky Derby. For these races leading up to it, Lukas said, he must train her hard enough to perform well but not so hard that she'll wear down by the first Saturday in May.
"We tried to squeeze by some of these races, and we did squeeze by on class alone," Lukas said. "We're not trying to do that this week, though."
For this race, Lukas said, he has trained Surfside harder in the mornings for this demanding test against colts. She will need every long gallop and six-furlong breeze that Lukas has prescribed.
In her past four races, Surfside was the overwhelming favorite. Her highest odds were 1-2. In the morning line for this race, she is 6-1. Only Captain Steve and the Bobby Frankel-trained Cocky, both 8-1, are higher.
The 9-5 favorite is War Chant, the undefeated Danzig colt. The Deputy, a converted turf runner, is 2-1. And Anees, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, is 4-1.
This is the 63rd renewal of the Santa Anita Derby, which only three fillies have won. The last was Winning Colors in 1988. Lukas trained her, too, and Winning Colors went on to become the third filly to win the Kentucky Derby.
Lukas realizes that running a filly against colts, especially early in their 3-year-old seasons, can be daunting. Even he acknowledges that running Surfside against males seemed a better idea in January, when few colts had emerged, than it does in April, now that colts from coast-to-coast have blossomed into major Kentucky Derby contenders.
"This crop of 3-year-olds is deeper than I've seen in a long time," Lukas said. "If a filly wins the Derby this year, she is truly exceptional."