There aren’t many people in Louisville who know more about racing than Pat Day, even if the Hall of Famer has been out of the saddle for nine years.
In a career spanning four decades, Day rode more than 8,800 winners, including one Kentucky Derby win, five wins in the Preakness, and another three in the Belmont. Day has been there and done it like few others – nobody has won more races at Churchill Downs or Keeneland.
Now almost as well-known for his faith and his triumph over addiction as his racing, Insider Louisville sat down with Day to discuss his views on California Chrome, jockeys’ lifestyles, racinos, and the role Christianity has played in his life.
Insider Louisville: What did you make of the Derby this year? How much of a boost would a Triple Crown winner be for racing?
Pat Day: First of all, I love how the community of Louisville creates such an incredible spectacle at Derby time. It really is an amazing thing. I liked the look of California Chrome when he won the Santa Anita Derby, so he showed enough form coming into the race that his win was confirmation of what people already thought about him. I like what I have seen of him since then, he looks well rested and he will be a very short odds favorite for the Preakness (Saturday, May 17). Racing needs a Triple Crown winner to get itself back on to the front pages for the right reasons… but we seem to say that every year.
IL: Any regrets about only riding one Derby winner?
PD: Not at all. I look back and think I was blessed many times over. Probably the race that was most important to my career wasn’t my Derby win [Day rode Lil E Tee to victory in the 1992 Derby], it was the win on Wild Again in the 1984 Breeder’s Cup Classic, the first time that race was run. It was the win that really catapulted my career from being decent to being really good.
But as a career highlight, nothing beats the Derby. I got to ride in 22 Derbies, and most of those times I had my pick from two or three good horses. So the fact that I only won it once… well it would have been nice to have won it more but to have regrets over my career would be to ignore the many great things I have been blessed with.
IL: You don’t shy away when it comes to talking about your faith, but did your conversion to Christianity cause personal conflict given the industry that you were so deeply involved in?
PD: Absolutely. At the time of my conversion  I had been in racing for about 10 years, but I seriously considered giving up racing because of its reliance on gambling for revenue – I gave serious consideration to throwing out my silks and my boots, going to study in a seminary and becoming a minister.
Prior to my conversion I had always said in interviews that my racing ability was “God-given,” and following a period of reflection and prayer with a racing chaplain called Mike Spencer down in Arkansas, I realized that was exactly right — that God wanted me to work within racing rather than outside of it. I have done everything since then with the best of my ability, all the while growing in my relationship with God and I hope living a life that is reflective of that. I have never used the platform God gave me to promote the gambling aspect of the industry.
IL: There’s a new chapel on the backside of Churchill Downs. Were you involved in its development?
PD: I have been working in racetrack chaplaincy pretty much since accepting Christ into my life, although the chapel at Churchill Downs itself is a much newer development. It’s a non-denominational chapel, and although many of the jockeys use it, it’s primarily aimed at the back-track staff who maybe don’t get the chance to go to a church of their choosing due to the hours that they work.
We have had a full-time ministry at Churchill Downs for some years. We used to meet in the building that is used as the rec hall, the media center in Derby week, but we ran out of space there, so we approached Churchill Downs about building a new worship center. The money was raised from some incredibly generous people, and we are very thankful.
IL: Your battle with alcohol and drug addiction ended at about the same time that you became a born-again Christian. Do you think addiction remains prevalent among jockeys?
PD: I am pretty sure it is not as prevalent as it was in my early days, when drug, alcohol abuse and promiscuity was rampant. I developed my own dependency problems, not because I had problems with my weight — luckily I never did, although many used that as an excuse — but because I had a void in my life, despite my success in my profession, and I tried to fill it with what was easily available.
Some guys used to take a lot of diuretics, sat in hot baths or saunas for hours, indulged in “flipping” [a racing term for binge eating then vomiting] and abused not just substances but their own bodies. Christ removed the chains of addiction from me, filling that gap with a sense of joy, peace and contentment. Maybe I am unaware of it because I have not been a part of it for so long, but I do think jockeys and all athletes are much better at understanding health and diet these days and no longer put their bodies through such extreme stress.
IL: I asked Edgar Prado this a couple of weeks ago, but how do you feel about the amount of medication that horses are given? Is there anything that should be done about it?
PD: Like Edgar I also feel that if it is in the best interest of the horse and has no long-term impact, then I have no real problem with medication. However, it used to be that only a small number of horses were given Lasix [a diuretic], ones that had a tendency to bleed when they raced. Now all horses seem to be running on Lasix, and I don’t believe they are all bleeders. I think that’s abuse. So yes we probably do overmedicate.
What I would like to see is some sort of international agreement on racing medication, the same rules in Europe, Japan or Australia, but seeing as we can’t even get agreement from state to state in this country I can’t imagine there will be any global agreement any time soon.
IL: How do you feel about racinos? Do you think that gambling should be expanded in Kentucky if it helps the racing industry?
PD: I know that people will call me a hypocrite for this, and to be clear this is not a comment on gambling itself. People will gamble on what they want to gamble on, but my concern is that racinos do not address the underlying issues that racing faces…
To me, expanded gambling, particularly slot machine use, is a sort of a Band Aid solution. A short-term fix. I wonder how long these big purses at racinos outside of Kentucky will last. If there is a law that says gambling profits need to support racing, that law can be changed pretty quickly if the companies running these places decide to take more of the profits for themselves.
We need to get more people on the tracks, to understand the thrill of the race. I don’t think racinos do that, and I have never thought any differently. Mixing racing and casinos is like trying to mix oil and water – for me, it just doesn’t work at least for the benefit of racing, and I don’t think Kentucky should go down that road. Casino companies don’t care about racing, it’s just their foot in the door.
IL: So you don’t think Kentucky would benefit?
PD: Other than in the very short term, no I don’t. I think Kentucky and racing’s long-term health is better served by taking a stand against racinos. It would force the state and the industry to take a much longer, harder look at how to improve the sport and our fan base, to get more people to the track. We can’t compete with table gambling and slot machines, but to go to the races is to experience something very different than to go to a casino. That is the issue, and expanded gambling won’t address that.