Retired jockey Pat Day sometimes speaks nearly as fast as he once raced on the world’s top thoroughbreds. He pushed his career at breakneck speed because he always thought a garland of satisfaction and peace to soothe his insecurity would await him at the finish line of success.
He was wrong.
He found that all of the winners’ circles this side of the famed, nearby Churchill Downs could not fill an emptiness that saddled him each time he took off his silks.
“I got to the top of the ladder in 1982 and 1983 as the leading rider in North America,” said Day, speaking by phone from his home in Louisville, Kentucky. “I got the brass ring — and ultimately found it was attached to nothing.”
Story continues below gallery
He will bring a bit of that message and more, including highlights of a 32-year, National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame career, to a presentation of his Christian testimony at the 9:30 a.m. Sept. 27 service at Columbus’ Memorial Baptist Church, 2320 Seventh St.
The 61-year-old native of Brush, Colorado, originally wanted to be a bull rider. But people on the circuit convinced him that his slight, 4-foot-11-inch frame would fit better at race tracks. Though most horse experts told him to expect a three-year horse farm training period for any thoroughbred success, Day won his first race at Arizona’s Prescott Downs in 1973 only a few months into riding.
“When I experienced such immediate success,” he said, “I quickly became arrogant, egotistical and cocky. I accepted all the credit for victories and blamed others when I lost.”
During the next decade, he also became an alcoholic and cocaine addict, even while his riding put him among racing’s elite.
Feeling lost and frustrated on Jan. 27, 1984, in a Miami hotel room late one night, he turned on the TV to find a televangelist talking about Jesus. He shut it off. When he awoke what he thought was several hours later, he turned on the tube again and felt the Holy Spirit in the room.
He felt a nudging to let go of the reins of his life. So he did, breaking down weeping by the side of his bed as he committed his life to Christ.
“I had spent all of my time living in a room of mirrors,” he said. “When I committed my life to Christ, he turned those mirrors into windows. And I was able to look outside for the first time on a hurting and lost society — members of the human race created in the image of God.”
His conversion was such that he initially felt God was calling him to leave racing and into full-time evangelism, especially given racing’s link to betting and gambling. But he searched Scriptures and gleaned wisdom from others and realized that many in racing needed others to bring God’s love to them. So he stayed, assisting with chaplaincy programs at tracks and speaking anywhere he could share his faith.
No matter where he reaches people, including addicts battling the same demons he did, Day lets God work however he wishes.
“Their changing is certainly not up to me,” Day said. “That’s up to the Lord. He promises that his word will work, and not return void.”
The Rev. Scott Murphy, Memorial Baptist’s pastor, brought in Day twice before at his previous congregation, First Christian Church in Guthrie, Ky. The pastor saw Day attract a number of people outside the church, including a few area veterinarians, who showed up to hear the former star athlete.
“I wanted people to clearly see that even someone as notable and well-known as Pat Day, a guy who has been all over TV, has a story (that) in some ways is not all that much different from the average Joe,” Murphy said.
Except for one part.
“Well, he really did an immediate 180 (degree turn),” Murphy said.
The day after Day’s hotel-room conversion, he even turned down liquor — something he never did — on the flight from Miami back to the Colorado home where he lived at the time.
The man who has won nine prestigious Triple Crown races felt it was far more important that God won his heart — and gave him a vision of using racing for a platform to spread the gospel.
“God is a God of a second chances,” Day said. “And though a lot of people would like to think that life’s a playground, it’s really a spiritual battleground.”
So Day wants to help others fight — and win whatever battle they’re facing. Goodness knows he understands what it takes to find victory.
1: Kentucky Derby victory in 1992
8: Highest number of wins in one day at a track
9: Wins in Triple Crown races
$600: His first winner’s purse in 1973
8,803: Career wins
Who: Legendary jockey Pat Day speaking at the 9:30 a.m. Sept. 27.
Where: Columbus’ Memorial Baptist Church, 2320 Seventh St.
Why: To share his testimony of how God delivered him from alcoholism and drug addiction — and how he has spent the past decade in full-time ministry at race tracks, churches and elsewhere.
Day’s current role: In full-time ministry as a speaker and also ambassador for the Kentucky-based Race Track Chaplaincy of America.
Family: Wife Sheila, married since 1979; daughter Irene.
Information: 812-376-6800 or memorialbaptistchurch.us.