Day, finally Derby winner, driven by God-given ability and by his God-given faith DOUBLY BLESSED

May 13, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The jockey totes a black leather Bible and talks of Jesus and Satan.

He earns millions in a sport that combines hope and sin. He uses calloused hands to soothe four-legged athletes that are pampered like royalty, and then drives the animals home with a whip that comes crackling down like lightning from a charcoal sky.

Pat Day wins and praises the Lord.

When the 117th Preakness is run Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, this 4-foot-10, 100-pound little big man will be at the center of a two-minute drama. He will ride Lil E. Tee, the long-shot winner of the Kentucky Derby. For the first time in his career, he is in the midst of an implausible Triple Crown chase. And he is alternately mystified and overjoyed by sudden acclaim and even greater fame.

"I'm getting blown away by all of this," Day said yesterday as he prepared to work his way through the rain and a nine-race card at Churchill Downs.

He sat in the jockeys' room, a towel around his waist, a crucifix dangling from a gold chain around his neck. His body is taut, his face chiseled and lined, his sandy hair combed neatly.

But what you notice first are his eyes, green and unblinking.

He is reading his mail. In the past week, he has received more than 100 letters. They are from fans moved by the sights and sounds of Day's first Kentucky Derby triumph after nine previous tries.

"To put into words what I'm feeling, I can't even describe," he said.

For Day, the Derby was never a blessing, just a curse. At 38, he might be the best active jockey in America, a member of racing's Hall of Fame, a winner of more than 5,000 races in a career that stretches back 19 years to a tiny Arizona track named Prescott Downs.

But, until the first Saturday in May 1992, Day knew only torment at the Derby.

He had finished second three straight times. He once had ridden a favorite that bled from the nose. What kind of luck was that for winningest jockey ever at Churchill Downs? Yet, he finally won with a horse rated 16-1, using patience and cunning after the 18-horse, cavalry-charge start, finally slapping Lil E. Tee's rump 15 times down the longest, noisiest stretch in racing, and winning in 2 minutes, 4 seconds.

Let others call it a walk. Day rejoiced. His saddle became a pulpit, and he sang praises to the heavens.

"I was elated God had taken that moment to bless me," he said. "I was screaming, 'Praise God. Hallelujah.' "

He found Jesus in a hotel near the Miami International Airport after watching Jimmy Swaggart on television. The night was Jan. 27, 1984.

JTC Within two minutes of meeting Day, you are informed of this fact. A man changes his life, he wants the world to know.

Before that moment, before his spiritual awakening, Day said, he was aimless, a man bent on self-destruction, drinking too much whiskey and snorting cocaine. He says all this now in hopes of providing strength to those who might be following the life he once led.

"I never mainlined," he said. "I took a lot of ups and downs and in-betweens. I ran the gamut."

His hard-charging lifestyle cost him a marriage and unsettled a ,, career that was spiraling upward after he won the first two of his four Eclipse Awards, given annually to the jockey voted the best in North America. Even when his personal life was touching bottom, he was still a superstar on the track.

"I thought that reaching that pinnacle of success would give me a sense of euphoria and contentment," he said. "I thought you had to party hardy to celebrate. I went on a drug and alcohol stupor. And two weeks into the new year, the feeling of success was gone. What was life all about? It was so unsatisfying."

So he found himself the night before a race, alone in that hotel room. For the first time in two days, he hadn't been drinking or snorting. He was tired, and he turned on the television set and saw Swaggart and thought nothing more of it. And he went to sleep. Deep and restful. He awoke what seemed like hours later, but, in fact, only minutes had passed. And he turned the television back on, and saw Swaggart again.

"I thought Christianity was for women, children and wimps," he said. "But, when I awoke, I had a distinct feeling that I wasn't myself. I knew the presence in that room was the spirit of the living Christ."

Since that night, Day said, he has been "delivered from the bondage of drugs and alcohol."

"No counseling. No relapse," he said. "I have no problem saying, 'No.' "

He is born again and sober. For some, gambling and religion might be in conflict. Day even said he once considered quitting racing and joining a ministry. But he said that, by riding, he "is doing the Lord's work."

For years, he was a racing superstar in search of one last prize, the Derby.

The Derby jinx was strange. He had won the Preakness twice. The Belmont once. He was the sixth jockey to surpass $100 million in career earnings. Still, no Derby winner.

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