From Winning Races to Winning Souls
Retired jockey Pat Day on a mission to spread God's message
By Peter Smith • email@example.com • April 30, 2008
Nearly three years after retiring as one of the most successful and popular jockeys in racing history, Pat Day sees it as his God-given responsibility to use his reputation to reach audiences with his evangelistic message.
"I really see everybody I meet as one of two groups of people: saved and unsaved," he said. "Those who know and love and trust the Lord Jesus Christ, and those who need to hear about the awesome love of God."
The Hall of Fame jockey has preached that message part-time since a personal conversion in 1984, but since he retired 2005, he has been evangelizing almost full-time at racetracks, chapels and other venues from Kentucky to South Korea.
Working with the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, "Pat has been as valuable to ministry outside of the racing limelight as he has been inside," said the Rev. Ken Boehm, the chaplaincy's representative at Churchill Downs.
Last month, he spoke at a Bullitt County church decorated like a hunting lodge with trophies of geese and deer for a Sportsman's Ministry night.
"It's my heart's desire that we would spend eternity together," he said to the hundreds who had gathered in camouflage and hunter's orange after live country music and a dinner of barbecued venison at First Baptist Church in Mount Washington.
"The only way that I can know that is if I know that you've accepted Christ into your heart," he said.
Speaking about his ministry recently, Day said his evangelistic zeal never seemed to put off those in the racing industry who didn't share his beliefs.
"I've not tried to be boisterous with it or pushy," he said. "I've not tried to hide it either. I've made it very clear where I stand. I think they've grown to respect that."
His former agent, Fred Aime, said he "couldn't ask for a better rider and a more likable and respected person. With his ability and his good nature, it made my job a lot easier."
Day, who grew up in the Colorado ranching town of Eagle, said he was confirmed in the Lutheran church as a child, but concluded religion was for "women and children and wimps." As a rising star on the track, he found he could "ride races all afternoon, win several races and I could run all night and drink and party and carry on."
He recalled going on a two-week bender of alcohol and cocaine after becoming the top rider of the year in 1982, then sobering up to the realization even that achievement had failed to bring him contentment.
He continued abusing alcohol until Jan. 27, 1984.
Alone that night in a Florida hotel room, Day said he woke up with a powerful spiritual sensation.
He turned on the television to a program and responded to an appeal to accept Jesus as his savior.
He said he immediately considered going into the ministry full time, partly out of concerns over the role gambling plays in the racing industry. But after consulting with a racetrack chaplain in Hot Springs, Ark., where he was scheduled to ride, "the Lord revealed to me that he had, in fact, saved me to work within the racetrack industry, not to leave it."
Day retired in 2005 with 8,803 wins and nearly $298 million in earnings, a record.
Day's religious conviction was famously demonstrated after his only Kentucky Derby win, in 1992 aboard Lil E. Tee, when he was photographed with arms raised, his beaming face looking skyward.
The image -- the basis for a bronze statue at Churchill Downs -- captures Day giving thanks to God for his elusive Derby win after several tries. Despite all his other accomplishments, that win had eluded him for so long Day said racetrack reporters had gotten used to his oft-repeated citation of the Bible verse Romans 8:28 whenever he lost -- that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him."
Day has spent much of the past few months preaching at a series of "faith festivals," which feature music and evangelism, at racetracks across the country.
He recalled one night in particular at Fair Grounds in New Orleans when virtually the entire crowd of more than 200 responded to his invitation to accept Jesus.
"I just broke down in tears," he said. "It's just a joy."
Day, 54, isn't the only one in the family with a ministry.
His wife, Sheila, operates Mom's Closet Resource Center, which provides aid and life-skills training to single mothers.
The couple, who have one adult daughter, live in eastern Jefferson County.
Pat Day says he is able to donate his time to the chaplaincy.
"I'm not Rockefeller, but I'm financially secure," he said. "My payment is the joy in sharing."
Day gets speaking invitations of all kinds, and one such invitation brought him to the Christian Sportsman's dinner in Mount Washington, where he was greeted with a standing ovation.
"He's so sincere, he talks so much from his heart, it's just amazing," said Donnie Poole, of Taylorsville, who was among those Day won over. "Everybody's for Pat Day, in Kentucky anyway."
Day said he still rides "every opportunity I get" at places ranging from a friend's farm in Oldham County to his native Colorado.
"I miss the camaraderie of the jockey's room and the daily interaction with the people, but I don't miss the competitive aspect of it, and that surprised me," he said.
He believes it's because God replaced that passion "with renewed enthusiasm … to win but not to win races, to win souls for the kingdom of heaven."