Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Pat Day embraces life after
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Pat Day is standing on hallowed ground at Churchill Downs on a recent Monday night, but it isn’t the Winner’s Circle he knows so well nor the finish line he has crossed so many times with no one in front of him.
The retired Hall of Fame jockey is in Christ Chapel, a place of worship tucked away near Gate 5 that he helped to build. Monday is the equivalent to Sunday at Christ Chapel, and the weekly service is pending as tired-looking men find a seat and children play with their mothers.
Day, 64, stands just inside the entrance in creased jeans and a crisp white shirt, shaking hands and looking people squarely in the eye as he asks how they’ve been. There is, as always, a stillness about him, an economy of movement that played no small part in his winning 8,803 races. Fourth all-time.
A free meal is served to backside workers and their families each week, and the service is delivered in both English and Spanish to accommodate the largely Hispanic track community. The congregation tonight numbers around 60 and volunteers are singing praise songs during dinner.
For the last song before the sermon begins, Day finds a spot in the congregation. On a nearby wall is a handwritten sign: “You broke my bonds of sin and shame.” He stands in front of his chair, gently rocking from side to side, while he quietly sings along to “Jesus, Thank You.”
There is no telling what goes through his mind as he sings those words. Maybe he flashes back on his decade lost to drugs and alcohol abuse, or those times when his cockiness turned into a mean arrogance.
More likely he’s simply living in the moment, grateful for a life after racing that he says is more fulfilling than steering multi-million dollar thoroughbreds around a track. Later, as he walks the collection basket around the room with a warm smile, that stillness starts to look like something else: contentment.
The Pat Day from Christ Chapel is Version 2.0. The many thousands of people he’s met in his adopted home of Louisville over the past few decades would not recognize Version 1.0.
Jump back 35 years and you’d find a raging alcoholic with a mean streak and a thing for pills. It was nothing for Day to wrestle several horses around a track for hours and then start pounding beers until oblivion came calling. He was an unpleasant drunk, he said, but lucky enough to rarely remember the night before.
“I hammered down right up until the time I came to Christ,” he said. “I would drink until I passed out and had no recall. I would wake up in the morning and my wife would tell me about what a heel I had made of myself and I would spend half the day apologizing to everybody.”
That all changed in a Miami hotel room in 1984. Day had been drinking for hours and fell asleep after the only thing he could find on television was a Jimmy Swaggart evangelical show.
He woke up after only a few minutes and felt a strong presence in his room. Shaken, he turned on the TV to calm his nerves and found Swaggart asking for sinners to step forward and be saved.
Day’s life profoundly changed in that moment. He fell to his knees, crying, and was born again with an absolute certainty that a vast hole in his life had been filled.
“When I got up the next morning and walked outside I had never seen the world look so bright and so beautiful,” he said. “The grass looked greener, the sky was bluer, the air was cleaner. It was a radical change.”
He rode for another 21 years, winning the Kentucky Derby aboard Lil E. Tee in 1992, and never shied away from talking about his faith. Since his 2005 retirement, Day’s efforts to honor that faith have grown exponentially.
He now ministers 24-7, he said, serving as president of the Kentucky Race Track Chaplaincy, which he helped establish in the 1980s. He travels the nation talking about his faith and career and how they intertwine, often working with the Race Track Chaplaincy of America.
Race For Grace, Day’s annual chaplaincy fundraiser, returns April 30 at Churchill Downs with hall of fame trainer Carl Nafzger as his guest speaker. His wife since 1979, Sheila, accepted Christ in 1985 and since 2002 has operated a fundraiser to help single mothers and their children in the Louisville area. She also helps run Race For Grace.
The most compelling evidence of Day’s life after racing is Christ Chapel, one of the world’s few dedicated chapels built on the grounds of a race track.
Shortly after retiring, Day teamed with WinStar Farms president Elliott Walden, trainer Bill Million and jockey Larry Melancon to first spearhead the hiring of a permanent year-around chaplain. That went so well they decided a chapel was needed.
Day and friends approached Churchill Downs management with the idea of adding a multi-purpose worship building and were greeted enthusiastically. The land was gifted to them, but they had to raise the money and meet one additional request.
“They said OK but with one condition and we all kind of cringed,” Day said, “like, oh, no, what are they gonna say? And they said ‘It’s got to look like a church.’”
“So we’re the third steeple,” Sheila Day said.
Day regularly drops by Churchill Downs, where he remains the all-time leading rider (a title he also holds at Keeneland). He often helps with chapel services or walks the backside, fielding delighted shouts whenever an old friend wanders by.
Day’s fame was instrumental when soliciting donations to build Christ Chapel, a non-denominational space with a large room for services, a separate space for youth Bible classes and activities, and a meeting room.
“The racetrack is a place where people are going at the speed of light,” Walden said. “It’s truly a lifestyle and not just a job. To have a chapel on the backside is a kind of beacon of light.”
Chaplain Joseph Del Rosario said that Day’s fame and experience benefit Christ Chapel but his value goes beyond his ability to bring attention to the chapel and its services.
“He uses his money to serve people and the glory of Jesus, and that’s why it’s enticing for people to see someone go through what you would call one of the greatest temptations, money, and he still seeks to serve,” Del Rosario said.
During his career, Day won four Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Jockey and the George Woolf Memorial Award, voted on by his peers. He led the nation in wins five times and in earnings twice (after 13 years away from the grind he’s still fourth all time in earnings).
It all came easily, Day said. Maybe too easily.
As a young man fresh out of tiny Brush, Colorado, he didn’t put in the same work as other aspiring jocks but simply started riding and winning. He never worried about his weight, staying right at 105 pounds with no effort.
Which meant he could drink a lot of beer, and he did. Then came the pills. His life was a cycle of high-level athleticism and friends in low places.
Day looks back now and believes that God was with him all along, guiding him into horse racing even though he preferred bull riding, and consistently putting him in the right spots at the right times to advance his career. He also believes that he was trying to fill a spiritual void with booze.
God also let him know when it was time to walk away, Day said, and it’s a decision he hasn’t regretted. Looking back over his life, Day believes that a neighbor in Colorado opened his heart to the Lord when he was 13 and he spent the next 17 years trying his best to rescind that invitation.
Success did nothing to lessen his feeling of being broken until that night in Miami.
“That night in that hotel room I didn’t invite Him into my life,” Day said. “I invited Him out of the back room and offered Him his rightful place on the throne of my heart.”
Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com