Racetrack leads from disdain to divinity
Hall of fame jockey Pat Day – the most successful athlete to ever come out of Eagle Valley High School – has a full heart today. It’s been filled with Jesus Christ for more than 20 years now, he says. But that wasn’t always the case for the 1971 graduate of Eagle Valley High.
Day, 51, says his life is all part of a divine plan. From his size – 4-foot-11-inches and 103 pounds – to his athleticism to a childhood spent on horseback, everything happened for a reason, he says. In 1983, Day says, there was a void in his heart even though he’d reached the pinnacle of his profession as a jockey. Day had just edged out fellow jockey Angel Cordero Jr. for 1982 jockey of the year honors. When the news came through, Day’s celebration began.”I overindulged,” says Day, who retired from professional riding last month after 32 years. “I partied for about two weeks in a drug-and-alcohol induced stupor. Winning didn’t make me eternally happy and joyful. It set me back and made me start asking: ‘What is life all about?'”Day describes the rest of 1983 as a period of self examination. He again won jockey of the year, but the joy from success on the track was fleeting.”Winning did not satisfy me,” says Day. “”It was great, but it wasn’t what I thought it would be.”On Jan. 27, 1984, in a hotel room in Miami, Fla., the void was filled, he says. “I woke up in the middle of the night and had the distinct feeling that I wasn’t alone,” he says. “I turned on the TV and Jimmy Swaggart was on. I knew I was being given the chance to invite Christ into my life. I fell down on my knees and wept.”Growing up on Lake CreekDay grew up along Edwards’ Lake Creek. At the time, the area was very rural. There were only two buildings on the Eagle River: the structure that is now home to the Gashouse and the small, green Kemp and Company building next door.”There weren’t but 10 families in the whole Lake Creek valley then,” says Day, recalling neighbors like the Orrs, Williams, Terrys, Burfords, Hargraves, Wassams, Allens, and Pilgrims.In those days, trips to the “big city” of Eagle with dad, Mickey, and mom, Carol, to see a movie or shop were few and far between, especially in the summer. Instead, Day, and his brother, Mike, worked on neighboring ranches or did chores around their home. They spent much of that time on horseback, either for work or pleasure.”We would take off from our home on Lake Creek and ride up to the head of what is now Beaver Creek,” says Day. “That was the ‘Big Park.’ I used to ride all of that country.”He picked up horsemanship skills from his father, who trained and broke horses for neighbors. Day’s ability to communicate with horses blossomed from the experience.”I have had many people tell me I am a natural over the years,” Day says. “Good riders aren’t made, they are born.” His first claim to fame came in high school, when he won the state championship in wrestling his junior year at 98 pounds. Day almost repeated that feat his senior year, but lost in the state finals – his only loss during his junior and senior years.”Wrestling was really the only sport I was proficient in,” says Day, who was too small for football and not fast enough for track. He credits his wrestling coaches, Ralph Starr and George McCollum, for helping develop his work ethic and teaching him to throw himself completely in to whatever he was doing, he says.His real dream at the time, however, was to compete on the professional rodeo circuit. For a few years after high school, Day worked all week making money to do the circuit on weekends. The bull and bareback riding taught Day how to fall from a horse without injuring himself – also part of the Divine Plan, he says. But things were not clicking for him as a rodeo cowboy, and Day found himself at a major crossroads. Then someone approached him with an idea he had never considered, he says. “A gentleman from the Riverside Thoroughbred Farm in California offered me an opportunity to go there and ride horses,” Day says . “At the time, becoming a jockey was the furthest thing from my mind.”
Humble beginningsDay found himself at home with nothing to do at the end of 1972. He called the farm in Riverside, and the proprietors told him to come on out, says Day. The policy on the farm was to keep future riders working for two years before even considering letting them ride competitively. That timetable was too slow, says Day.”I was working from dawn to dusk, seven days a week there,” Day says. He moved to Las Vegas to bide his time until the next rodeo season, but didn’t find a job until he heard of a farm on the outskirts of Henderson, Nev., where riders could get two dollars a head to run horses.”It was kind of a spring training for horses and riders,” Day says. “I learned to live pretty cheap in Vegas back then.”Day lived out of his car, eating at Las Vegas buffets, and showering at the homes of dealer and bartender friends.”I was close to the competition there and it began to get in my blood,” says Day, who was running the horses for a man named Steve Talbot. When Talbot went to Southern Arizona as a clerk of scales on the fair racing circuit, Day followed. Talbot introduced him to a number of people in the race game, including agent Karl Pew. He started training horses with Pew.”We spent a lot of time together, and I got to see everything he did with the horses,” says Day. “By July, I wanted to start riding.”On July 29, 1973, Day won his first race. His success was almost immediate, and it came at a price.”It gave me an arrogant, bad attitude,” Day says. “You have to keep in mind that I was always a little guy. When I had the success, I had a chip on my shoulder.”That chip went all the way back to high school, where he was often the brunt of jokes about his size. When he found wrestling success, the arrogance started showing itself. It lasted all the way up to that fateful day in 1984, when Day became a born-again Christian, he says.”I was disrespecting the success that I was having,” he says. “People weren’t going to put up with me. From 1984 until now, since I recognized the opportunities I had from the Lord, my life has been amazing.”
Time to quitThe years of racing took a toll on Day’s body. In a sport where jockeys rarely ride past their late-30s or early-40s, Day was an anomaly.”It’s tough to turn loose of,” Day says of retiring. “(Some jockeys) hang on. If you aren’t getting the quality rides, you slowly slide into oblivion.”Many riders tire of injuries and battling to keep their weight down, Day says. The wear and tear over the years forced Day to have hip surgery at the beginning of 2005. The repair operation was a success, and he was able to return to competitive racing this past summer. On June 18, he won what would be his final race at Churchill Downs aboard Two Trail Sioux – but something wasn’t right, he says.”She wasn’t easy to ride,” Day says. “It took all of my experience and ability to win the race.”Although the win was an indication he could compete, Day says the victory was hollow. After racing in the Delaware Handicap on July 17, again aboard Two Trail Sioux, he says the competitive fire had gone out and the lack of enthusiasm sent him searching. To find the answers to his questions, Day withdrew to a cabin in the woods near his home, he says. “On Sunday afternoon, I mouthed the words: ‘It’s time isn’t it?'” says Day. “There was a weight lifted off my shoulders immediately.” Again, the void was filled. Joy, peace and contentment settled over him, he says. “I had a renewed enthusiasm and excitement about what the future holds,” Day says. “I was thrilled and excited at serving God 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
‘Eternal consequences’Day made his retirement official in a press conference at Churchill Downs on Aug. 4. Since then, he says, he has been as busy as ever. He continues to work with the Race Track Chaplaincy of America program, a nationwide network of chaplains ministering to people in the horse-racing industry, both at the track and farms.”There are many people out there in the racing who can’t get to church for one reason or another,” Day says. “This help bring church to them.”Day helps his wife, Sheila, with her ministry in Louisville, and now has more time to focus on his daughter, Irene, currently a freshman at the University of Louisville.”I really feel and believe that the things I will be doing the rest of my life will be more rewarding and fulfilling than my racing career,” Day says. “I have something to look forward to the rest of my life, and it will have eternal consequences.”Day says he’s as surprised anyone about his success over the years. He says that on his long ride through life, someone always had a plan for him, even if he wasn’t always aware of it. “My wife turned our basement into a trophy case. When I look at it, I marvel at God’s handiwork,” Day says. “I say, ‘why me?’ A kid from Colorado, who treated everyone with disdain, and disregarded my talent and opportunity. I marvel at what God has enabled me to accomplish.”Vail, Colorado
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