Pat Day Accepts Big Sport of Turfdom Award

Pat Day may have retired from riding but he's not slowing down. The 2005 winner of The Big Sport of Turfdom Award is on a crusade, along with the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, to help spread the good word on the nation's backstretches.

Following a two-hour luncheon in Beverly Hills Jan. 23 to honor the the 52-year-old native of Brush, Colo., for his efforts to help promote racing during his 32-year career in the saddle, Day said he's "never felt so fulfilled."

"Not at bit," he responded when asked if he missed riding since his retirement in August. "There's been no retirement. I'll continue working with this (the Chaplaincy) until I draw my last breath."

Over the next year, Day plans to embark on a national tour of racetracks to help local chaplains. He's set to begin the campaign March 3 at Oaklawn Park. At each stop, he'll be the keynote speaker at fundraising dinners and spend a day or two walking the backstretch to personally reach out on behalf of the ministry.

During a brief address to about 100 people gathered to honor him at Mastro's Steak House in Beverly Hills, Day said, "I'm totally committed to Christ and sharing the gospel from this day forward. If I had three lifetimes I could never pay it back. It might be a day, a year or 20 years. I'm trying to show the love, make a difference. If I can save one person it will all be worthwhile."

Earlier, he said, "The more I live, the more I realize that life is incredibly fragile and fleeting. The one certainty in life is death. It is with great assurance that I face that day with the love of Christ. That's what I'm about today. I'm totally about Jesus."

With his voice breaking, he recalled his final moments with fellow jockey Dean Kutz, who died after a long battle with cancer in September 2004 at the age of 48.

"I had the privilege of holding his hand as he went home to the Lord," Day said. "As sad as it was, there was the knowledge that we would meet again on the other side. There is no greater joy than that."

Then Day led a prayer.

Day is known most for what he accomplished on the track. He retired with 8,803 victories -- fourth all-time -- in his fabulous career, winning 22 meet riding titles at Keeneland and 34 at Churchill Downs. He won 12 Breeders' Cup races, five Preaknesses, three Belmonts and one Kentucky Derby aboard Lil E. Tee in 1992. His mounts won a record $297,912,019 before a hip injury brought about his retirement.

But he was being honored not only for his accomplishments, but more importantly, for his leadership role as an ambassador of the sport. Who else would refuse to leave a long line of waiting fans at Keeneland until every last one got his autograph? Who, on Pat Day Day at Churchill Downs, took time out for a couple getting married in the track's winner's circle to act as a witness to the event? Or spend a couple of hours hanging out with the gate crew at Canterbury Park because they had asked to meet him?

Winning the first Breeders' Cup Classic in 1984 with 31-1 outsider Wild Again, he said, "was the turning point of my career."

That landmark victory came just months after Day became a born-again Christian. "Before then I was not a happy person. I wasn't content. I was never satisfied. I knew this was what I needed -- a relationship with God.

"It was pretty obvious that God blessed me with great ability. But with that quick success came an unnessary arrogance and lack of respect."

Until last week, it was not assured that Day would be able to make the luncheon because of a scheduling conflict. He worked it out, although his wife of more than 25 years, Sheila, and their daughter, Irene Elizabeth, were unable to accompany him. Day made the visit to Beverly Hills with Dr. Enrique Torres, the executive director of Race Track Chaplaincy, and Day left immediately afterward to catch a return flight to Kentucky. Day is scheduled to address the Governor's Prayer Breakfast in Frankfort Jan. 24, Torres said.

"Pat says he's not the most important person," Torres said. "He's the link in a chain that leads to Christ, he believes. He doesn't see himself as a great person. But it's a great honor to work with him."

Day said it was important to thank the media and publicists.

"The media has always been the liaison between us and the fans," he said. "And over the years, they have done a great job."