Grace Van Dyke catches up with the Hall of Fame jockey turned trackside evangelist.
Top: Day riding Lil E. Tee in the post parade prior to the 1992 Kentucky Derby, where they scored one of the biggest upsets in the race's history. Photo via Churchill Downs Communications.
At 19, Pat Day knew nothing about horse racing and had no desire to participate, yet he retired having won more prize money than any other jockey in history.
Day discovered horse racing by accident. At 4’11” and 100 pounds, he had all the makings of a perfect jockey.
He grew up around horses on his family’s small ranch in Edwards, Colo. His father Mickey taught him how to ride his pony bareback saying, “I want you to learn to ride the horse, not the saddle.” Later, he assisted his dad with breaking and training some of the neighbor’s horses.
By age 19, Day was traveling around the western U.S. experiencing limited success as a rodeo cowboy. He was getting bucked off of bulls regularly and unwittingly learning how to fall safely — something he would later use to avoid injury.
People started telling him he should look into horse racing, something he “had no idea about.”
Day got his first job in the industry late in 1972 at age 19, and left within a month. He was at Riverside Thoroughbred Farm in California where he had been told it would be years before he would ride in a race. “I didn’t know what I was trying to do and I didn’t have a lot of patience,” he said.
Come January of 1973, Day found himself in Las Vegas unable to find work of any kind, so he went to Las Vegas Downs racetrack in the suburbs and got a job exercising racehorses.
“It felt great,” Day said. “I discovered horses wanted to do what I wanted them to do with little encouragement.”
It wasn’t long before trainer Steve Talbot invited him to Arizona. The move brought Day to another trainer, Karl Pew, who would put Day on his first winning mount at Prescott Downs.
“It was July 29, 1973, a rainy day. The horse’s name was Foreblunged. It was awesome. It was an adrenalin rush. The best way I can describe it is highly addictive,” Day said. “I’d only ridden in 10, maybe 15 races at the very most at that point.”
That was the first of 8,803 wins.
One of those victories was 15 years later on a horse named Easy Goer. He holds the second fastest time in the Belmont Stakes, bettered only by the legendary Secretariat.
That was the best horse I ever rode,” Day said. “He got beat in the Derby and the Preakness, but he won the Belmont.”
Easy Goer ran the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct before the Triple Crown races that year.
He won the race with no help on my part,” Day said. “With a little encouragement from me, he would have eclipsed the world record time for a flat mile. He was one-fifth of a second off that pace.”
Easy Goer may have been the best, but Wild Again gave Day “the single most important” win of his career. He ran in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1984, and gave Day the first of his 12 total victories in that race.
But he wasn’t expected to.
“It was an all-star cast. I didn’t think he fit,” Day said. “I’d never been on a horse before and I haven’t been on one since that tried that hard. He refused to give up. He knew the confidence people had in him. It was as though he said, ‘I’m not going to let them down.’”
As with many races, he recalls every stride “as though it was yesterday.” It didn’t go as planned, and it was far from an ideal trip to give Wild Again the win. He did best when he could stalk the leaders and stay just off the pace.
But a horse in front spooked sideways to the right, causing Wild Again to do much the same.
“After that, he locked onto the bridle and went to the lead,” Day said. I couldn’t slow him down.”
He wasn’t sure if he’d won at the end of the race. The finish was rough, and it was close.
I don’t know what caused him to reach down and dig deep and win the Breeders’ Cup that day,” Day said. “What I do know is Wild Again gave me everything he had.”
It was an upset, and as Day was being led to the winner’s circle, the crowd was roaring.
I lifted my cap and looked to the sky and thanked my Heavenly Father,” Day said.
Photos of that moment would later be used in an advertising campaign for the Breeders’ Cup, something that might never have happened if Day had not found his faith earlier that year.
Day arrived in Miami for a race in January, and was staying in a hotel alone. He turned his TV on to a sermon by televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, in which he had no interest. He flipped through the channels, found nothing else to watch and went to bed.
“I awoke with the distinct feeling I was not alone, thinking I had been asleep for quite some time,” Day said. “I turned the TV back on and realized I hadn’t been asleep for long at all. The sermon was still on, and it was the point in the show where viewers are invited to come to Christ.”
Day fell to his knees, wept and prayed for some time.
“I realized the presence in the room was the spirit of the living God,” he said. “I had everything in this world, but Christ was the key to joy, peace and contentment.”
Until that point, Day said he’d been an “arrogant winner and miserable loser.” He said he was instantly able to break the chains of bondage to drugs and alcohol.
“My wife and I were going through some problems, probably related to that,” Day said. “My faith allowed us to come back together. If not for that, I probably wouldn’t have become a father.”
Day said two of his greatest moments in life were marriage to his wife Sheila, and the birth of their daughter Irene. But, he said, the key event was coming to Christ.
Sharing my faith is decidedly more rewarding and fulfilling than my racing career. My success was for this purpose. My message is to listen, that God loves you. He sent his son to the cross for you. He wants to spend eternity with you.”
Immediately after becoming a born-again Christian, Day began struggling with whether he could continue pursuing a career in an industry that revolves around gambling. “I gave serious consideration to selling my racing equipment and going to seminary,” Day said.
After conversation and prayer with the Race Track Chaplaincy of America’s Mike Spencer, Day came to understand he was saved to work within the industry. Day began a tour called “What a Difference a Day Makes” to benefit the RTCA on July 20, 2004.
“We went to a multitude of tracks, and I was privileged to be present,” he said. “It was a joy to meet and greet the people and speak to them about Jesus Christ.”
Day also served as a liaison between the RTCA and racetracks around the U.S. Upon his retirement in 2005, he spent three years traveling the world sharing his faith. He continues to enjoy opportunities to speak at racetracks, and also at youth groups and churches.
I had been given all of that success to use as a platform to get attention and give the glory to God,” he said.
Day even left the end of his legendary career in the hands of God. Hip surgery to repair damaged cartilage caused him to sit on the sidelines, lose business and question whether he could compete at the same level.
The answer was yes. He won his first race after recovery, the Fleur de Lis Handicap, on a filly named Two Trail Sioux. “I believe I contributed significantly to the outcome,” Day said. “I hadn’t lost anything. I got to ride pain free. It was great.”
But instead of excitement when he crossed the finish line, he had no feeling at all. In search of guidance, he spent some time alone at a friend’s cabin on the Kentucky River.
“I finally gave it up to the Lord and decided to end my riding career,” Day said. “I accomplished everything and I’m excited about what the lord has me doing today.”
That brought the close to Day’s celebrated 32-year career. According to the National Museum of Racing, he rode more than 40,000 mounts and won almost $300 million in prize money, making him the No. 1 earner of all time. He has nine wins in Triple Crown races, and is the only jockey to have ridden in each of the first 20 Breeders’ Cup Classics. Day was inducted into the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in 1991.
I was so blessed because they were paying me to participate, and even more if I won,” he said. “It was a hobby and I was blessed to make a living at it.”
Day likes to reference the Winston Churchill quote, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
One of his favorite things about racing, Day said, was how the horse brought everyone together.
“Horses are marvelous creatures,” he said. “They are very much like people. They have likes, dislikes, quirks and personalities. If a horse loses and there’s no logical reason why, something went wrong that day and messed with his attitude. Likewise, I’ve been on horses any given day that refuse to get beat.”
Day still rides any time he gets the opportunity. He is retired in Louisville, Ky. and continues to spread the word of God.
Grace Van Dyke graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville with a B.S. in Communication and Information in May 2013, and is currently in her first year at Elon University School of Law. She started riding when she was 4 years old, entered her first horse show at 7, and rode in her first Grand Prix at 14. In 2007, she became the only rider to have competed in both Eventing and Show Jumping at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships.