08/04/2005 12:00AM

Day shares decades of memories

Pat Day and his daughter, Irene, wipe away tears Thursday at Churchill Downs, where Day spoke of his retirement. Below, Day on Easy Goer, who he called "the best horse I ever rode."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For some 40 minutes, Pat Day was his usual upbeat and articulate self, frequently expressing wonderment at a 32-year journey that had brought him unforeseen fame and riches.

Then bugler Steve Buttleman began playing a somber rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" in the Churchill Downs room where Day had been talking about his retirement from racing, and the tears began flowing.

"I know I'm doing what God wants me to do," Day said, trying to compose himself. "But I love this game. I'm going to miss it - a lot."

Aside from those few highly charged moments of sadness, Day's official retirement announcement, which lasted nearly an hour Thursday morning in the Jockey Club Suites at Churchill, was more a celebration and remembrance of his Hall of Fame riding career than anything else. Day thoughtfully recalled the people and horses who were instrumental in helping to make him one of the all-time great jockeys as he kept repeating that it was his "God-given talent" that carried him through his storybook career.

"It's taken me above and beyond my wildest expectations," he said.

With his daughter, Irene, and wife, Sheila, seated alongside, Day, 51, said "in hindsight" that his first serious thought of retiring occurred in July 2004, when he was on a tour of 10 racetracks for the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America. His final decision to retire came sometime last week, when he retreated alone to a friend's cabin on the Kentucky River near Frankfort for several days of soul-searching.

"I think it was God's timing" that finally convinced him to retire, he said. Last summer, "I failed to get all my directions. I kind of ran off half-shod, you might say."

He said a major turning point in his retirement decision came June 18, when his cagey ride led to a front-running ride aboard Two Trail Sioux in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill. The win was the first in a stakes since Day had returned from a three-month layoff forced by hip surgery, which was performed March 30 in his birth state, Colorado.

"That should've meant a lot of joy, like 'I'm back!' " said Day. "But the lack of joy that I was experiencing at that particular moment, I think that was God's way of getting my attention. The rest of the meet, I was kind of in the doldrums."

Having attained virtually every major goal in racing, Day now will primarily turn his attention to his family and to working for the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America, in which he has been heavily involved since shortly after becoming a born-again Christian in January 1984. The chaplaincy, which is headquartered in Los Angeles and is represented at more than 100 racetracks and equine facilities in North America, is "trying to come up with a title" for Day, said executive director Dr. Enrique Torres. "For now we are calling him our ambassador-at-large."

Day said he will attend the Hall of Fame ceremonies this weekend at Saratoga while also attending a Chaplaincy function there. His second point of business with the organization will involve an Aug. 21 fund-raising event at Canterbury Park in Minnesota, where efforts are under way to build a chapel that will honor Day's late friend and colleague Dean Kutz.

"After that, I'm not real sure," said Day.

His absence from the saddle will be long noted at tracks throughout the Eastern half of the United States, especially at Churchill and Keeneland, where he is an iconic figure and the all-time leader in virtually every major riding category. For a span of 10 or so years that began in the early 1980's, Day was about as dominant as a jockey can be, riding primarily at Churchill, Keeneland, Arlington Park, and Oaklawn Park.

In the early- to mid-1990's, he essentially swapped Arlington and Oaklawn for Saratoga and Gulfstream, and although he seldom ranked among the leaders in wins at those Eastern tracks, the switch further allowed him to secure mounts of a higher caliber on a national scale. In 1999 and 2000, he reaped the fruits of that move by leading the nation in mount earnings.

Day retires as racing's all-time earnings leader with $297,912,019. He won 8,803 races, fourth on the all-time list behind Laffit Pincay Jr. (9,530), Russell Baze (9,036), and Bill Shoemaker (8,833).

Day played a major role in some of racing's most memorable events, including the inaugural Breeders' Cup Classic in 1984, which he won in a three-horse photo aboard 31-1 shot Wild Again, and the riveting series of races between Sunday Silence and his arch rival, Easy Goer. Sunday Silence won three of their four meetings, but, said Day, "I still feel strongly that the best horse I ever rode was Easy Goer."

He said his fondest memory will be winning the 1992 Kentucky Derby aboard Lil E. Tee. It was his lone Derby victory from 22 mounts. "That's the one that stands out, of course, because of the importance of the race," he said. "Otherwise, there's a bunch of them that's head and head. I was blessed to ride some of the Who's Who of racing. Actually, not all of them were Saturday-afternoon type of horses, but they'd lay it all on the line and give you 110 percent. My heart goes out to all racehorses everywhere."

Besides his countless accomplishments as a jockey, Day also forged a well-earned reputation as a humanitarian, most notably in his behind-the-scenes work with terminally ill children.

Tom Meeker, president of Churchill Downs Inc., called Day "a role model . . . through the way he conducts himself as a human being." Steve Sexton, president of Churchill Downs, said he has seen Day "touch more lives in the three years since I've been here than in my previous 25 years in racing . . . this is one special human being."

Day's wife, Sheila, said: "Pat doesn't just love the racetrack people. He loves people in general."

Day said that although he is looking forward to working with the chaplaincy, the one thing he probably will miss most about riding is being in the Derby. That was a major reason he could not help but break down for a couple of minutes when "My Old Kentucky Home" was played near the end of the media conference Thursday.

"The Kentucky Derby is the cornerstone of racing," he said. "The entire racing calendar is built around the first Saturday in May. To not have that opportunity again is sad. I'm going to miss it a lot."

Day at a glance

* Oct. 13, 1953: Born in Brush, Colo.

* July 29, 1973: Rides first winner, Forblunged, at Prescott Downs in Arizona.

* November 1980: Wins his first of 34 riding titles at Churchill Downs by leading the fall meet.

* Dec. 31, 1982: Ends year with 399 wins, the first of six times to lead all North American jockeys in that category.

* Jan. 27, 1984: Commits his life to Christianity.

* June 20, 1984: Sets a Churchill record by riding seven winners from eight mounts.

* May 5, 1984: Rides in first of a record 21 straight runnings of the Kentucky Derby (Vanlandingham, finishing 16th).

* Nov. 10, 1984: Rides Wild Again to a dramatic upset in the first Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park.

* March 1985: Honored by his peers with the George Woolf Memorial Award at Santa Anita.

* May 18, 1985: Guides Tank's Prospect to a narrow victory in the Preakness, the first of his five Preakness wins and nine overall Triple Crown wins.

* March 3, 1987: Day and his wife, Sheila, who married in 1979, have their first and only child, daughter Irene.

* June 10, 1989: Foils the Triple Crown bid of Sunday Silence by winning the Belmont aboard arch rival Easy Goer, whom Day calls the best horse he ever rode.

* Sept. 13, 1989: Wins with eight of nine mounts at Arlington Park to set a one-day North American record.

* Aug. 8, 1991: Inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.

* October 1991: Rides a record 45 winners at the Keeneland fall meet, one of 22 times he leads Keeneland.

* 1991: Honored with fourth and last Eclipse Award as top jockey (also 1984, 1986, 1987).

* May 2, 1992: Wins the Kentucky Derby aboard 16-1 shot Lil E. Tee, his only Derby winner from 22 mounts. He also had four second-place finishes.

* October 1995: Announces he no longer will ride winters at Oaklawn Park, where he won 12 riding titles and is the all-time leading rider, to ride instead at Gulfstream Park.

* June 6, 1996: At Churchill Downs, he carries the Olympic torch as it makes its way to Atlanta.

* Aug. 25, 1997: Rides Bay Harbor at Saratoga for win No. 7,000.

* October 2000: Honored by the National Turf Writers' Association with the Mr. Fitz Award for typifying the spirit of racing.

* June 10, 2000: Rides Commendable to an 18-1 victory in the Belmont Stakes for his last Triple Crown victory.

* Dec. 31, 2000: Ends year by leading all North American jockeys in earnings for the second straight season ($18.1 million in 1999, $17.4 million in 2000).

* May 31, 2001: Rides Camden Park at Churchill for career win No. 8,000.

* Oct. 27, 2001: Rides Unbridled Elaine to win the BC Distaff, his last of 12 Breeders' Cup wins.

* Aug. 10, 2002: Rides With Anticipation to win the Sword Dancer at Saratoga, allowing him to pass Chris McCarron as the all-time earnings leader with more than $264 million.

* June 18, 2005: Rides Two Trail Sioux to win the Fleur de Lis at Churchill for his final stakes win.

* July 10, 2005: Rides his 8,803rd and final winner, Ay Caramba, in the fifth race at Churchill.

* July 17, 2005: Has his final mount, finishing second on Two Trail Sioux in the Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park.

* Aug. 4, 2005: Officially announces his retirement.