There’s another, less well-known steeple tucked away behind gate 5, in the shadow of the famous twin spires of Churchill Downs. It’s the steeple of Christ Chapel, a church just for the workers who keep the backside of the track humming along.
Look around for a bit and you’re likely to find a familiar face. It’s a face that once dominated the racetrack itself aboard some of the greatest Thoroughbreds ever to kick up the dirt.
That familiar face belongs to legendary jockey Pat Day. He retired from the sport in 2005, but he’s remained a presence through his work with Kentucky Race Track Chaplaincy.
Day is nearly as well known for his faith as he is for his skill and success on the back of a horse. The same moxie that drove him to give his best on the track also animates his humble service.
I had the extraordinary fortune to interview Day back in 2008, just a few years after he announced his retirement. I took some time recently to listen to that interview again. A few of my insights from our conversation:
People with moxie make mistakes.
Actually, everyone messes up. Some of us spectacularly. It was a realization of how much he was messing up that drove Day to his knees in a hotel room in Miami in 1984.
Day spent the first part of his career drinking and drugging his way into oblivion regularly. His capacity for booze was outstripped only by his arrogance.
“I kinda saw myself as a step above everyone else. I felt like the world revolved around Pat Day,” he muses. “It was like living in a room full of mirrors. I could only see myself.”
On that fateful night in his hotel room, Day awoke from a substance-induced haze with a strong sense of another presence in the room. He flipped on the television and found himself watching televangelist Jimmy Swaggert preaching the Good News.
You are a sinner, Swaggert said. You are messed up. But God can and will redeem your life if you simply ask, and follow Him.
Day hit his knees and prayed. When he got up from the floor, everything looked different.
Those mirrors that had once surrounded Day, allowing him only to see himself? They were gone.
“God turned those mirrors into windows,” said Day, allowing him to see everyone around him with a renewed sense of love and compassion. He wanted then – and wants now – everyone to have the chance to experience that same powerful sense of peace and forgiveness.
Since that moment, Day has dedicated himself to serving God.
People with moxie know how to settle in for the long race.
Day has had a lot of accolades in his life, most of them gained in lightning-face two-minute increments on the racetrack. He’s won the Kentucky Derby (1992), the Preakness Stakes (1985, 1990, 1994, 1995, 1996) and the Belmont Stakes (1989, 1994, 2000). He’s won the Breeders’ Cup Classic (1984, 1990, 1998, 1999). He’s won dozens of other races and raked in $298 million in winnings over the course of his two-decade career. He is also a four-time winner of the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1991.
But Day hopes to be remembered for what happened in the long stretch of his life off the track, in the shadow of the barns and stables, beneath the third steeple at Churchill Downs. When he reaches the end of his life, it’s not “You sure where a great jockey” or even “You sure did win a lot” that he wants to hear.
“I would like to be remembered as a man after God’s own heart,” says Day. “My goal is to one day hear Jesus say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.'”
If you had a chance to say something to Pat Day, what would you say?