During the late 1970s, the little prodigy from Colorado was being overwhelmed. "I was too immature, too emotional," he reflected in later years. "When I won, I was right up, and when you get beat, you go all the way down. I was trying to level out the highs and lows through drink and drugs, making excuses for myself: 'Well, hell, I'm in a high-pressure situation, I need something to relax'. It was a miserable way to live."
In January 1984, the lights came on, and Day has conducted himself with the zeal of the convert ever since. Little wonder, as he won the inaugural Breeders' Cup Classic that autumn on Wild Again. There are times when he sees God's hand even in the way the track had been harrowed to his advantage before a big race. Whatever people made of that simple certainty, however, for the past two decades he has become cherished for the authentic humility he brought to one of the greatest riding careers of all time.
Wayne Lukas enjoys similar stature among trainers - if not quite the same reputation for modesty - and he knows its value. "We throw around the word 'great' too easily," Lukas said once. "Greatness comes from excellence over a long period of time. Pat Day has proven that degree of excellence, and weathered the test of time."
Such an commendation seemed a distant possibility when Day first sat on a horse. His father owned a fender repair shop in Eagle and all the boy knew of riding was what he had seen in cowboy films. He climbed on to a pony, gave him a kick in the belly and shouted "yeehaw". Needless to say, the animal first took umbrage and then took flight. "He just cut and took off round the corner of the house, down past the barn and into the field, and I'm hanging on to the saddle, screaming the place down."
When he finally came to a halt, the petrified boy never wanted to ride again, but his father insisted that he remount. He always remembered that, and likewise the day when they went into the Rocky Mountains together, during his first months as a jockey. Day was told that whatever he wanted to do with his life, he just had to do it to the best of his ability. "Even if I was a ditch-digger. And that's what I've tried to do."
Originally, he wanted to be a bull-rider in the rodeo, and his early experiments would stand him in good stead: he learned how to fall, roll and "get the hell outta there". The difference between horses and bulls, he said, was that the bulls would come back and chase you. But he kept meeting people who told him to become a jockey instead. "They never said if it was because of my small stature and competitive nature, or if it was because they were looking to save my life."
Either way, it was wonderful counsel. Day was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991, and won four Eclipse Awards as outstanding rider. Six times he was national champion by races won. There is a 50-foot mural of Day on an old bank in Louisville, alongside Muhammed Ali. This spring, however, he missed the Kentucky Derby for the first time in a record-breaking run of 21 years, as a result of hip surgery. And in that riverside cabin last week, he accepted that he was no longer getting the same exhilaration from his first vocation.
Already heavily involved in a chaplaincy scheme on the backstretch, he has now resolved to commit himself entirely to the ministry. "For somebody who has achieved so much, he is always humble in spirit," said Elliott Walden, who trained many winners for Day. "And that gives him instant credibility. I have seen him change hundreds of lives." All that has happened now is that Day has resolved to change one more.
HYPERIONS SELECTIONS FOR TODAY'S OTHER MEETINGS
SEDGEFIELD: 2.30 Wembury Point 3.00 Caliban 3.30 Valuable 4.00 Lahib The Fifth 4.30 Swallow Magic 5.00 Beaugency
WORCESTER: 2.20 Marathea 2.50 Silence Reigns 3.20 Kilindini 3.50 Whispered Secret 4.20 Jack Durrance 4.50 Waterberg 5.20 Bronco CharlieReuse content