Faith spurs jockey Day Horse racing: The Hall of Fame rider attributes his success and rise from substance abuse to a religious awakening.

June 07, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Even more than Pat Day's splendid ride aboard Louis Quatorze in the Preakness, Marylanders may remember more clearly his words, into every microphone, thanking Jesus and praising the Lord.

Day rides horses for a living, but his life belongs to God.

"God came into my life and set me on a new course and saved soul from hell," Day said in a telephone interview yesterday from his home track, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. "He desires to do that for each and every one of us."

Day will ride Louis Quatorze in tomorrow's Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. He guided the 8-1 long shot to a wire-to-wire victory in the Preakness Stakes three weeks ago at Pimlico.

Afterward, Day looked skyward and sang the Lord's praises to a mostly uninterested group of reporters. ABC's Jim McKay, although tolerant of Day's testimonial, ended his interview on national TV by pointing out that Day had not always been religious, but that that was a story for another day.

It is now another day.

Day, 42, is one of the top jockeys of all time. His accomplishments are extraordinary: one of seven jockeys with more than 6,000 victories, leading rider in the country for four years, eight Breeders' Cup victories, winner of four Eclipse Awards as the top jockey in North America, member of racing's Hall of Fame, one Kentucky Derby victory, two Belmont wins and five Preakness triumphs, including the last three in a row.

But in the 1970s and early 1980s, Day was a cocky, hot-tempered abuser of alcohol and drugs, first marijuana and then cocaine.

He started drinking his senior year in high school in Brush, Colo., where he lived on a farm. His father worked as a body-and-fender man during the week and broke neighbors' horses on evenings and weekends.

Day grew up believing the greatest thing in life was being a bull rider. He tried doing that -- with minimal success, he said yesterday, laughing -- but he embraced the lifestyle of rodeos, pool halls and ice-cold beer.

Finally, he turned to riding racehorses, won his first race in 1973 at Arizona's Prescott Downs (the purse was $631), got married, moved to New York, won a few races, fought with jockeys, got divorced and crawled out of the city low and loaded.

"Even then, I thought I had everything under control," Day said. "But ever since that night when I committed my life to Christ, I realized that I had been on a one-way trip to self-destruction."

He got remarried and even became a top jockey. But his volatile life still was out of control. After one bitter fight with his wife, he jumped off a second-story balcony -- but suffered no injuries.

Finally, in January 1984, in an empty hotel room in Miami, Day awoke from a sound sleep. He felt another presence in the room. He knew unmistakably, he said, that it was Jesus Christ.

Day fell on his face and wept.

"I don't believe you can stand face-to-face with the living God and ever be the same again," he said.

And he never was the same.

For a while he struggled with remaining part of an industry that revolves around gambling. But he said the Lord revealed to him that he should continue using his God-given talent with horses so that racing could be the platform for sharing his faith.

"I still want to win as much as ever, and I get upset and discouraged when I get beat," Day said, moments after finishing fifth in yesterday's first race at Churchill Downs.

"But my prayer is to be either a humble winner or a gracious loser."

After capturing the Preakness, Day was humble, even though he had reason to gloat. He rode Louis Quatorze only because trainer D. Wayne Lukas had removed him from his mount on one of Lukas' horses, Prince of Thieves. Instead, Lukas wanted the hot Jerry Bailey.

Nick Zito, who trains Louis Quatorze, said this week that Day was perhaps the only individual in horse racing who could have experienced no malice after such a slight.

"It might look a little silly to some, his quoting Romans and all that," Zito said. "But this fellow honestly believes in his faith; I can promise you that. We could all take a page from the life of Pat Day."

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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