11/10/2005 1:00AM

Day retired, but still involved


Just as Ernie Banks meant the world to Wrigley Field and Bill Russell owned the boards of Boston Gardens, Pat Day has inscribed his name indelibly upon every square inch of the stretch at Churchill Downs, where he reigns as the all-time leading rider.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Day should be given a day of his own at the Louisville track on Saturday, beginning with an autograph session for fans, followed by a variety of tributes, and ending with a Pat Day celebrity roast to benefit the Race Track Chaplaincy of America.

Day won four Eclipse Awards and 8,803 races during his 32-year career, which included 9 wins in Triple Crown events and 12 victories in a variety of Breeders' Cup races. His career mount earnings of $297,941,912 is the monetary bar to which all other riders aspire, and his place in the Hall of Fame has been secure since his induction, in 1991.

At age 52, financially set and reputation intact, Day could be forgiven if he decided to fade blissfully into the scenery, allowing the game to go on without him.

Instead, Day plans to be every bit as visible on the ground as he was in the saddle. He has committed his time to work with the Race Track Chaplaincy as a representative at large, traveling to North America's racetracks appearing at fund-raisers, making himself available to the backstretch community, and, in his own way, exposing others to his Christian faith.

It is a faith that seems to inform Day's every waking moment. It is also a faith born of a self-destructive lifestyle, dating back to his 20's, when he was a hell-raising star on the rise.

"I was a very animated winner," Day said this week from his Louisville home. "When I won, I really let the world know it. Common sense, though, tells you that when you go that high when you win, you're going to go just as far the other way when you lose. The emotional and mental strain was horrific.

"And it's not just riders. It's anybody in any walk of life that finds himself highly successful. Look at the Wall Street guy who hits it big one day, then the next day you find him in a ditch somewhere doing coke. Nobody is immune.

"The world would have you believe that the thrill of victory, the thrill of a big sale, is supposed to give you joy, peace, and contentment," Day said. "When they find it doesn't, then they find their highs in other places, whether it's drugs, alcohol, an illicit sex affair, whatever it is. For the first 30 years of my life, and the first 10 years of my career, I was busy doing that."

What Day refers to as "my salvation" came in January 1983, right after he made headlines with his first national championship.

"At that time in my life, I thought that once you had won the Big Kahuna, you celebrated, you partied!" Day said. "After two weeks of a drug and alcohol stupor, I took a personal inventory and discovered I was absolutely hollow."

What transpired since then - and lasted until Day's retirement in August - was a virtually uninterrupted career of prodigious bounty. Even for those who might balk at Day's relentless message of Christian salvation, there can be nothing but admiration for his record on horseback. Blessed by a small, wrestler's physique and an uncanny touch, Day was able to set a standard of performance that translated well to any kind of Thoroughbred.

Few jockeys in the history of the sport have performed at such a high level for such a long period of time. Day attributes his success to a divinely predestined plan, along with an uncanny ability to avoid serious injuries.

"It seemed from the start, before I even knew how to tie my reins, that I was able to sense when a horse is going wrong and possibly avoid riding them into the ground and causing spills," Day said. "I'm sure that made a difference, coupled with my experience on knowing how to fall from my bullriding days."

Although vastly more comfortable in a stable area, Day surfaced on Capitol Hill last month to testify in a House committee hearing on jockey insurance, safety, and recent management problems at the Jockeys' Guild, of which Day was once president.

"I've always been supportive of the Guild, and very involved," Day said. "But I didn't want to be a part of it with the current management in place. The hearings made it clear that there were some radical changes that needed to be made in management.

"I will always have the jockeys' concerns in the forefront," he said. "With new Guild leadership, if there is something I can do to help, I am not at all opposed to that."

In the meantime, Day will have his plate full working with the Race Track Chaplaincy.

"I don't know anybody more blessed than I am," Day said. "To have ridden for 32 years and enjoyed a successful career, and then to be able to look forward to the work I'll be doing now with the Chaplaincy, I can only give thanks.

"And the best thing is, I'll never retire from this," he said. "What I'm doing today is what I will be doing every day until I draw my last breath."