10/10/2003 12:00AM

Pat Day at 50: 'I'm doing great'


LEXINGTON, Ky. - When Pat Day turns 50 on Monday, he probably will take at least a few minutes to pause and reflect on his life.

Not that Monday will be much different from any other day.

"I'm usually up early every morning, reading the Scriptures and praying," Day said Thursday in a Keeneland jockeys' room interview. "I try to make a lot of time in my life for reflection and prayer. But as far as stopping whatever I'm doing just because I'm 50, there'll be plenty of time for that when the Lord calls my name. It's like the Kenny Rogers song: 'There'll be time enough for counting when the dealing's done.'"

Born Oct. 13, 1953, in Brush, Colo., Patrick Alan Day has become a legend - the most accomplished and perhaps respected jockey in the history of racing in the Midwest. His statistics and career highlights are enough to fill page after page; his trophies and plaques are enough to fill room after room. In fact, in the eastern Louisville home he shares with his wife, Sheila, and daughter, Irene, there is a room set aside for some of the mementos collected during his storybook career.

"Sometimes we'll take a walk down memory lane, just as a way to recollect all the great moments I've been privileged to enjoy in this game," said Day. "But we're always looking forward, too. I feel quite certain that God still has a lot of work left for me."

So as The Big Five-Oh comes and goes, the obvious question is whether that work relates to racing - and if so, for how long.

A farm boy who grew up in Eagle, Colo., as a high school wrestler and rodeo rider, Day rode his first Thoroughbred winner at Prescott Downs (now Yavapai) in Arizona on July, 29, 1973. After a little more than 10 years in what he often describes as something of a dark period in his life - he frequently abused drugs and drank - Day became a born-again Christian in January 1984. Coincidence or not - and he certainly believes it is not - his career has skyrocketed since then.

A conversation of meaningful length with Day about his life unfailingly delves into his faith, for he and his faith are inextricably linked. So when he talks about his riding career, there are the inevitable references to how certain events and circumstances relate to God.

"Do I feel like I can keep riding into my mid-50's, late 50's, even 60?" he asked. "Right now, the answer is yes. I'm really enjoying riding right now. I'm really enjoying the victories, whether it's a maiden claiming race on a Thursday, the feature on a Saturday, or on Breeders' Cup Day.

"I feel very good. Maybe I'm a little stiffened up when I wake up in the morning, but I've got a calisthenics routine that helps me get past that. And maybe my eyes aren't as good as they used to be. I have to use cheaters [eyeglasses] sometimes. But overall, I'm doing great."

As a natural lightweight of just over 100 pounds, Day has been free of the torment that often faces jockeys who have to reduce to make proper weight. His body also remains perfectly sculpted, and his size gives him an ideal seat on a horse. His balance, his skills, and his judgment also remain remarkably keen.

Indeed, he is ready and eager for more, although he said he is not trying to accomplish anything in particular in racing, even though Laffit Pincay Jr.'s lifetime wins mark may be within his reach.

"I don't really have any career goals, per se," Day said.

A career mostly free of injury has allowed Day to keep thoughts of retirement in the back of his mind.

"By the grace of God, the most serious injury I've had in more than 30 years was a broken collarbone that caused me to miss seven weeks. Obviously, we've had various accidents and injuries, but never anything too serious. But the nature of this game makes you very much aware that this could be the last day.

"A while back I was being stressed about some things [about riding and retiring], and my wife said, 'You'll know when it's time, and you'll know exactly what to do when it's time.' I believe that. One day, that's the way it'll happen. I'll know when to quit, and I'll know what to do thereafter. Obviously, that time hasn't come yet."

Derby defector Sir Cherokee nears return

Sir Cherokee, the Arkansas Derby winner who was pointing toward the Kentucky Derby but was scratched two days before that race, is scheduled for his first serious breeze on the comeback trail "Tuesday or Wednesday," said his trainer, Mike Tomlinson.

After getting post 3 for the Kentucky Derby, Sir Cherokee was found to have a small crack in his right rear cannon bone and was taken out of training until late summer. Tomlinson is hoping to have the colt ready for the $150,000 Oklahoma Derby on Nov. 16 at Remington Park. "but I don't want to push him that way if he can't make it on his own," Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson said he tries not to think about what might have been if Sir Cherokee had run in the May 3 Derby. "The way the race set up, I sure thought we could've got a piece of it," said Tomlinson, 49. "But I try not to torture myself with all that. It was just tough luck and a part of the game that we all live with."

* Trainer Dallas Stewart said Friday that Overbrook Farm's Clock Stopper, rallying winner of the Perryville Stakes on Thursday, is under consideration for the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup Sprint.

"We still have to talk and try to get a game plan," said Stewart. "He ran awfully well. The negatives are that the Sprint is pretty close, and I don't think Santa Anita is really a come-from-behind kind of track. I want to think we've got a shot to win it if we go."