A cold wind blew straight down the stretch at Aqueduct racetrack, but that didn't deter the faithful who huddled by the rail to watch Saturday's Wood Memorial. They weren't there to cheer on their bets—there was no way to make decent money on this race. They were there to get goose bumps—not the kind that come with the chilly air, but the kind a horseplayer gets maybe once a decade or so, when watching a really great one run.
And sure enough, at the turn for home a shiny copper-colored colt, the 1-10 favorite, the one they were all waiting for, swung into the lead and began to draw off. Easy Goer floated down the stretch as if wind-borne, flashing under the wire three lengths ahead of an exhausted colt named Rock Point and four others.
On Easy Goer's back Pat Day sat quietly. He looked over his colt's ears, peering into the future. After crossing the finish line of the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Wood, Day stood in the stirrups but made no move to stop his horse, letting him gallop out another furlong, matching the mile and a quarter distance the colt will have to travel at Churchill Downs on May 6 in the Kentucky Derby. Easy Goer just kept going, full of run even when Day finally tried to pull him up. In Day's mind, that answered any can-he-go-the-distance questions about the colt. And more. "This is not only the best horse I have ever sat on," said Day. "This could be the best I've ever seen."
Together, Day and Easy Goer make about as sure a Derby bet as any horse-player is likely to see. No jockey has ridden as many winners in the 1980s as Day—some 3,270. No one has come close. Some folks in Louisville joke that Churchill Downs should be named Day Downs. He has won more stakes races there than anyone else; in the fall of 1987 he had an astonishing winning percentage of .367 at the Downs. But he's never won the big one. He is 0-6 in the Kentucky Derby.
Ah, but surely this is the year, and Easy Goer is the horse. People talk about the colt as if he were Man o' War incarnate. If Easy Goer lives up to his press clippings, he will be draped with roses on the first Saturday in May, with Day on top, smiling away. Certainly. Or as certain as anything can be in this game—after all, racing is full of odd turns and bad luck. And Pat Day knows as well as anyone, it's so easy to fall.
The Days' kitchen in Hot Springs, Ark., is warm and bright, with blue-and-white country-chic accents—geese on the walls, on the dish towels, on the pot holders. Irene Elizabeth, 2, marches around wearing one shoe, humming, then stops to pull some pots and pans out of a cupboard. In a cardboard box near the dryer a Yorkshire terrier, Miracle, nurses five newborn pups. The microwave beeps. Pat's wife, Sheila, is preparing lunch: home-baked bread, apple juice (served in commemorative Derby glasses) and a chicken casserole topped with crumbled potato chips.
It's almost too much—too homey, too clean, too close to the latest baby-boomer blueprint for happiness. But it fits perfectly with Day's racetrack image: straight-arrow, God-fearing, modest, honest, polite. His new image, that is.
Sheila talks about the early years of their marriage: "When Pat did the drugs and the drinking he was a different person. When we were first together I used to pray, God we need help. He was just, uh...." Pat, always helpful, calls in from the other room with the words she is seeking. "A real Jekyll and Hyde," he yells.
"Yes, that's right," Sheila says. "Jekyll and Hyde."
In 1981, two years after they were married, a few days before he was to ride in the first Arlington Million at Arlington Park, Pat and Sheila had a fight. She slammed the door and drove away. "I just went nuts," Pat says. He ran to the balcony of their Chicago condominium and jumped off, landing two stories below. Heavy rains had soaked the grass, and Day was unhurt. Now, he says, it was all part of God's plan.
When Pat Day speaks he looks you straight in the eye. Trainers prize his ability to analyze a race; when he jumps off a horse they learn far more about the animal from Day than from an ordinary jockey. Reporters know he'll have more than the standard riders' comments of "My horse, he run good." Day doesn't equivocate, and he has the unnerving effect of sounding absolutely honest, even if sometimes undiplomatic.
Shug McGaughey, who trains Easy Goer, first used Day as his jockey some eight years ago, at Keeneland. "Pat came into the paddock before the race, and he kept telling me what a good-looking horse another horse in the race was," says McGaughey. "That didn't really go over too good. I didn't think my filly could beat the overwhelming favorite, but I wanted to get a good race into her, and I thought Pat was concerned more about riding the other one than mine." After the other horse won, McGaughey resolved never to use Day again. But the next year at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs the trainer stood at the rail and watched Day win race after race. "I told my wife, I got to get on this bandwagon," McGaughey says. "This guy is just making fools out of the rest of us."
It didn't take other trainers long to catch on, either. "Pat has a sixth sense of knowing where he is in a race and how much horse he has and what he can do with that horse," says D. Wayne Lukas, the country's leading trainer.
"He's a very smart rider," says Hall of Famer Woody Stephens. "He don't rush horses off their feet."
"He has marvelous hands, gentle hands, and horses respond to this kindness," says Mack Miller, also a Hall of Fame trainer.
At 35, Pat Day is at the top of his profession. In 1984, 1986 and 1987, he was voted the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding rider. He won three consecutive national riding titles from 1982 to '84, a feat matched only by Bill Hartack in the mid-'50s. He makes more than $1 million a year and has ridden many of the best horses of recent years. Trainers beg for his services.
"He's a very patient rider," says McGaughey. "He'll stay and he'll wait and wait to make a move, and sometimes you wonder how in the world he can wait as long as he does."
But there was a time when Day didn't live the way he rides, a time when he would wait for nothing and no one. Day's mother, Carol, remembers him in the old days: "He had such a temper. He would throw things, blame everyone but himself."
"I called it the cowboy in him," Sheila says. "He had very certain ideas about what a wife should be and should do. I had to cater to him all the time. Once, he went out to buy a Racing Form and didn't come back until three in the morning. And then he didn't even have a Form with him! Remember?"
Pat nods, and mentions the influence of one of his low-life friends.
"Yes!" Sheila says. "The bum!"
Irene is delighted to hear a word she knows. "Yes!" she shrieks. "Yes, yes!"
"Hush now, baby," her father says, gently. "Hush now."
The old Pat Day is gone, say those who knew him back then. No more temper tantrums, no more Mr. Hyde. But how can such anger just disappear? When he talks about the old days, Day mentions the devil a lot. "Old-Satan-is-the-master-of-deception-and-the-father-of-all-lies" rolls off his tongue with the speed of a mantra.
Day says his riding talent is natural, that riding is something he was obviously born to do. He has a point: At 4'11" and 100 well-proportioned pounds, he could be the prototype for the perfect jockey. But at first Day wanted more than anything to be a cowboy. The second son of an auto repairman, he grew up in Colorado in places named Brush, Rifle and Eagle. When he graduated from Eagle High in 1971, he pursued his true calling, bull riding.
"In my mind," he says, "to be a cowboy was to drive all night to the rodeo drinking coffee, and as soon as the rodeo is over you get to drinking and phasing women. You do that until the sun comes up and you have to hit the road again." Day loved the life.
Trouble was, the rodeo clowns soon learned to be extra alert when Day left the chute. "I didn't show much promise," he admits. Again and again, the diminutive cowboy would sail off a bull, pick himself up and knock the dust off his chaps. "Uh, Pat, did you ever think about being a jockey?" people asked.
"I wasn't interested," Day says. But eventually, inevitably, the way a seven-footer one day finds himself on a basketball court, Day found himself exercising racehorses. In July 1973, seven months after he first sat on a thoroughbred, just a few months before he turned 20, Day won his first official race, on a colt named Foreblunged, at Prescott Downs in Arizona, for a $347 purse.
From the beginning, Day had a special touch; he won steadily on the mile tracks in Massachusetts, New Orleans and Chicago. "Knowledgeable people who saw me claimed they knew right off that I had something," Day says. "I didn't have to be taught—it was just there. And I was cocky before I got on the racetrack. When I did good immediately, I started to think I was the center around which the racetrack revolved."
He also started using drugs, going from marijuana to cocaine, and continued to drink like a real cowboy. In 1976 he married Deborah Bailey, daughter of New Orleans trainer and former New York rider P.J. Bailey. "If you don't make it in New York," his new father-in-law told him, "you're just a bum in the ballpark." So Day took his act to the big city.
Two years later he slunk out of New York, broke and friendless, a bum in the ballpark. He had won some races at the New York tracks, but along the way he had alienated his agent, fought in the jockeys' room with Angel Cordero and Jorge Velasquez, and divorced his wife. He went to Miami. "I rode for maybe 10 days, but it just wasn't there," he says. "I turned my back on the racetrack." Day went on a drugs-and-drinking spree that left him "in a comatose state" for weeks on end, until a friend, Steve Rowan, "scraped me out of the gutter." During the winter of 1978, Rowan took him back to New Orleans and persuaded trainers to use him.
But Day didn't put away the drugs. "It's a vicious cycle," he says. "You do the cocaine through the day, then you start drinking and hitting with the coke. And by night you have to take something so you can come down. In the morning you're still feeling the effects of the downer, so you have to take something to get up." In 1978 in New Orleans, Day started dating Sheila Johnson, and they were married a short time later, but that didn't change him much. He would pick vicious fights with her; sometimes he would jump in his car and drive all night when he got high; eventually, he leaped off that balcony.
But when he hit the ground that day, he hadn't yet hit bottom. It was three more years, in January of 1984, Day says, before he stopped using drugs and alcohol. When he tells the story of what happened, he speaks with that disconcerting directness. "I flew into Miami for a race the next day at Hialeah," he says. "It was late at night, and I checked into the Howard Johnson's near the airport. When I got into the room and turned on the TV set, which is a habit, Jimmy Swaggart was having a televised crusade." Day wasn't interested and turned it off. "I got into bed and almost immediately I fell into a deep sleep, which was unusual for me in view of the fact that I hadn't had my daily dose of alcohol as a tranquilizer. I awoke at what I felt was a long time later, and I had the distinct feeling that I wasn't alone in the room. It was unnerving, because when you go to bed in a hotel near Miami International Airport and you think you're not by yourself, that's reason for concern." Day says he turned on the television again, saw that Swaggart's show was still on and realized that he hadn't slept long and that Jesus Christ was the presence in the room. "There was an immediate transformation within me. I fell on my face in front of the TV and wept," he says.
In sudden fashion Day replaced his devotion to cocaine with a dependence on God; and while religious conversions are not uncommon among the chemically dependent, those who knew Day were not immediately convinced. "His attitude was so different," Sheila says. "I thought they had switched guys on me." It was more than a year before she felt certain that Pat's transformation was permanent and for the better. Two years later they adopted Irene, and just a year ago they traded in the motor home they lived in while Day raced at various tracks in the Midwest and bought the house in Hot Springs.
About the only piece of racing hardware missing from the Days' living room is that Kentucky Derby trophy. In 1987 Pat had his best chance to win one, and what a fitting victory it would have been: His horse that day, the Derby favorite, was named Demons Begone. As the colt stood in the starting gate, everything felt right. But when the bell rang, Demons Begone's feet slipped, and after recovering, the colt didn't respond to Day's urging. Up the backstretch, as he slipped farther back in the pack, Day knew something was wrong. He started to pull up; it was then he saw the blood pouring from the colt's nostrils. The favorite left the track in an ambulance, and the cause of the sudden bleeding was never determined.
On May 6, barring unforeseen disaster, Day will be on the Kentucky Derby favorite again. He says, "If I let myself get overeager about the Derby, the disappointment—such as with Demons Begone—would be almost devastating." But after the Wood, Day let eagerness creep into his voice. "This looks like it could be the year," he said. "There's something this horse has—T can't put my hands on it. I've never found it with any other horse."
Is this the year? Real horseplayers, of course, disregard horses' names—handicapping is a science of numbers. But scribble this on your Daily Racing Form: In the past, besides Demons Begone, Day has lost the Derby on horses named Rampage and Irish Fighter. It might be time for the bull-riding, Jekyll-and-Hyde, bible-thumping Pat Day to win the big one on a colt whose handle isn't so apt. A horse named Easy Goer.
Easy Goer nailed down the Wood, and will carry Day in his seventh shot at the Derby.
Day went from cowboy to cokehead before a religious experience transformed his life.
In the 1987 Derby, Day was derailed when Demons Begone failed to finish the race.
At home in Arkansas, life for Sheila, Pat and Irene Elizabeth has become a smooth ride.
In the jockeys' lounge at Oaklawn Park, Day reads the Bible, as is now his daily habit.