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SPORTS: More than a jockey, Pat Day was a missionary

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–For 22 years at Churchill Downs, Pat Day has been fortunate enough to have one of the best seats possible in the Kentucky Derby — perched atop the back of a speeding thoroughbred.

The legendary jockey was a fixture in the Derby, and in all of horse racing, for that matter. He accumulated nearly 9,000 wins in his 32-year career, amassing purse winnings of nearly $300 million in that time.

This year, Day will have a different vantage point for the May 6 race. Day retired as a jockey in August, and to honor him for his prestigious career, Churchill Downs gave him a luxury box from which to watch the race.

But Day instead is choosing to watch the race from the backstretch with a group of friends.

“Here’s a guy who’s won almost every horse race imaginable, and he’s going to be watching the Kentucky Derby from the backstretch,” said Ed Donnally, a longtime friend of Day’s and development director of Racetrack Chaplaincy of America.

That choice might surprise Donnally if it came from someone else. But with Day, Donnally has grown accustomed to such humility — humility that springs from Day’s relationship with God.

“He understands what his accomplishments are, but he always gives the credit to God,” Donnally said. “He’s someone who’s walked his talk a long time in a place where it wasn’t popular at all.”

Every time Day dismounted from a horse after a race, he’d gladly testify about his love for the Lord. In some circles, Day even earned the nickname “Little Jesus.”

“Sportswriters didn’t really like him at all, because you’re going to get a quote about Jesus whether you want one or not,” Donnally said. “He’s put Christ on the sports pages in a lot of places across the country.”

Ken Boehm, chaplain at Churchill Downs, is another longtime friend of Day’s who speaks about the great jockey with admiration.

“He’s just a real person,” Boehm said. “We can never go out and have lunch, especially here in Louisville, when we’re not interrupted, and he never turns people away. He starts talking to you and brings you in as a friend, even if he’s just met you. He’s a genuine Christian man who lives to please nobody more than Jesus Christ.”

At one time, Day wondered how he could please God by making his living in a sport that’s largely built on gambling. After he became a Christian, he thought about walking away from the sport for that very reason.

But after wrestling and praying over the matter, Day decided that God had placed him in horse racing for a reason. He didn’t condone the gambling, but he knew that he could be an example to those who didn’t know the Lord the way he did.

So he stayed, and he prospered. He won race after race after race, and he always deflected attention from himself and toward Jesus Christ. Those who know Day best say that horse racing is better because of it.

“People think that he was a jockey by profession, but he was a jockey by the God-given talents God gave him,” Boehm said. “By profession, he was a missionary in the racing world.”
Tim Ellsworth is a columnist for BP Sports, online at www.bpsports.net. Write to him at [email protected] or visit his blog at www.timellsworth.com for additional commentary on sports, Christianity, culture and politics.

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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