The first race Pat Day ever won was at Prescott Downs, a bullring of a track in Arizona, on July 29, 1973.
Day's mount that day was a claimer named Forblunged. On a muddy track, the horse earned $347, which meant that Day's 10% share was $34.70. There's no winner's circle photo of the event. The photographer said that the rain messed up his camera.
More than once since that modest beginning, Day has reflected on his career's many peaks. "I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming," he said.
The milestones have come and gone, replaced by bigger, more incredible milestones, and Thursday at Churchill Downs, after Day rode his 8,000th winner, there was no danger that a photograph wouldn't survive for posterity. A battery of photographers was on hand at the Louisville track when Day returned to the winner's circle after riding Camden Park, a 3-year-old colt, to a one-length victory in the $44,200 sixth race.
Only two other jockeys have won more races than Day. Laffit Pincay, who's 54 but with a new lease on the fountain of youth, has 9,153 wins. Bill Shoemaker retired in 1990 with 8,833 wins, the record until Pincay broke it in 1999 at Hollywood Park.
Day, 47, has ridden in more than 36,000 races and his horses have earned about $246 million. He has won nine Triple Crown races--the only Kentucky Derby victory coming with Lil E. Tee in 1992--and a record 11 Breeders' Cup races. He was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in 1991.
Younger than Pincay by more than six years, Day would figure to pass him in total wins someday.
"There's only one thing wrong with that thinking," Day said. "Laffit keeps winning. If he'd stop, I might have a chance, but it doesn't look like that's ever going to happen."
It might be a year or two before another jockey reaches the 8,000-victory mark. David Gall, No. 4 on the list behind Day, had 7,396 wins upon his retirement. In the fifth spot is Russell Baze, who has almost 7,400. Baze routinely wins 400 races a year in Northern California, but he still shouldn't reach 8,000 until the end of 2002 or early in 2003.
Camden Park's win Thursday came from just off the pace in a 1 1/8-mile grass race. Trained by Elliott Walden, the son of A.P. Indy had been a Kentucky Derby prospect before he ran poorly in two prep races. His future now appears to be on grass.
On Thursday, Day was riding him for the first time. They were in third place early, passed the leader, Broadway Bunny, at the head of the stretch and then held off a late run by Fair Trade. The winning time was 1:49, and Camden Park, the favorite, paid $3.60.
Day had finished fourth, third and second with three earlier mounts on the card.
"After those first three finishes, I said that the direction we were going in should lead to a win," Day said. "By the grace of God, it was."
Another Walden trainee, Elite Mercedes, provided Day with win No. 8,001 in the eighth race.
Growing up in a ranching community in Colorado, Day hadn't thought of becoming a jockey until a few friends encouraged him. His first choice had been to become a professional bull-rider, but after working for several months at the Riverside Thoroughbred Farm in California in 1973, he took out a riding license and was on his way.
Day's career was threatened by alcohol and drug abuse in the 1970s, but he has been sober since he said he had a mind-altering experience of a different sort in a motel room in 1984. Twice he has served as vice president of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America and he has said that he plans to be involved in the ministry when he retires from riding.
Day said the race that sent his career into high gear was the longshot win with Wild Again in the first Breeders' Cup Classic, at Hollywood Park in the fall of 1984. It is in Kentucky, however, where Day rules. He has been riding champion 29 times at Churchill Downs and 17 times at Keeneland in Lexington.
His 6,000th win came at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and his 7,000th was at Saratoga in upstate New York, so Day was happy that No. 8,000 came in the city where he lives and at a track where he has won more than 2,000 races.
"It's a very emotional moment for me," Day said. "There are no fans like the fans here in Louisville."