As remarkable as Pat Day’s accomplishments were as a jockey, his personal transformation is even more so.
For much of his young life, Day appeared to be on a path to destruction. He sensed a tremendous void but could not determine what it was.
“I thought it could be found in the sordid lifestyle of alcohol and drugs and carrying on,” he said. “It wasn’t.”
It seemed that the more he drank, the more he used drugs, the emptier he felt. Although he was winning races at a rapid pace, he often found it to be a joyless exercise because his demons were always wagging a tempting finger at him.
“I found the pot at the end of the rainbow,” he said, “and it was empty.”
Day can identify the date when he became a changed man – Jan. 27, 1984. It was then that he became a born-again Christian and his belief in God led him to sobriety.
“It was a radical and immediate transformation in my life,” he said.
With his mind finally clear, he was able to devote all of his effort to his faith, his family, and his riding assignments. He believes much of the talent that sustained him through a brilliant 32-year career was God-given.
“I came from an area where there was no horse racing. I knew nothing about the great sport of horse racing,” said the native of Brush, Colo. “I was an absolute natural. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just doing it.”
Day earned his first victory on July 29, 1973 at Prescott Downs in Arizona, never imagining he would be a dominant figure in the game by the following decade. But he was, sweeping Eclipse Awards as the leading rider in North America in 1984, 1986, 1987, and 1991.
After nine failed attempts to win the Kentucky Derby, he made that breakthrough when he guided 16-1 Lil E. Tee home in the 1992 run for the roses for what he will always regard as his most significant triumph. “Having tried nine times before, I finally won,” he said. “It was decidedly sweet and absolutely indescribable.”
Trainer Lynn Whiting had targeted Day to ride Lil E. Tee from the moment the horse arrived at his barn through a private purchase. Whiting, who died in April 2017, said of Day’s skills, “He kind of bonded with the horse. He had great hands and he always kept something for the finish.”
Day describes an almost mystical connection he was able to make with his mounts. “Horses wanted to do what I wanted them to do,” he said. “They were very responsive and you combine that with intuitiveness, with a sixth sense of knowing when to pull the trigger, I can’t explain that.”
Although Lil E. Tee represented his only Derby success, he won the Preakness five times and the Belmont Stakes three times. He piled up 12 Breeders’ Cup victories. Four of those occurred in the Classic, with improbable longshot Wild Again (1984), Unbridled (1990), Awesome Again (1998), and Cat Thief (1999).
When Day retired on Aug. 4, 2005, he had earned a record $297,912,019. He ranked fourth in victories with 8,803. That included 2,481 wins at Churchill Downs, where he earned an astounding 34 meet titles. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1991.
“I measure other riders by Pat Day,” Whiting said, “and that’s the greatest compliment I can pay him.”
Day said he derives his greatest satisfaction from the work he is doing now as he helps others who are troubled to improve their lives.
Note: The story was originally published in February 2015 and has been updated.
- Went winless with 14 starters during his first Churchill Downs meet in 1980, placing second six times
- Rejected mount on eventual Derby winner War Emblem (2002) because he did not want to bump Victor Espinoza
- Won Preakness in track-record time with Louis Quatorze (1996) after being dropped from Derby mount
- Churchill Downs honors Day with the Pat Day Mile, traditionally held on Kentucky Derby day
- Nicknamed “Baby Hands” by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas
- Took time off to be with daughter, Irene, when she was a high school senior