LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Churchill Downs spent Saturday honoring recently retired Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day — naming a race after him, announcing plans to build a statue in his likeness and even hosting a dinner roast.
But even with all the hoopla and praise directed his way, it would be hard, in Day’s mind, to top how he started his day at the track: as an official witness to a wedding in the winners’ circle.
“Isn’t that an awesome beginning for a great day,” Day said, attaching to his lapel a flower given him by the bride, Anne Ferrante of Buckhead, Ga. “Unbelievable!”
Ferrante, 54, and her new husband, 61-year-old Conrad Arthur Nichols, knew the track was going to honor Day on Saturday but certainly did not expect him to serve as a witness at their wedding, scheduled more than 2½ hours before the first race.
But track chaplain Ken Boehm, who performed the ceremony, asked Day to participate, and Day — a devout Christian who’s now a spokesman for the Race Track Chaplaincy of America — happily agreed, making a special day for Nichols and Ferrante even more memorable.
“What a treat,” Nichols said. “Our friends and family won’t believe it until they see the photos.”
Day, 52, retired in August after 32 years as a jockey. His 8,803 career wins include 918 at Keeneland in Lexington and 2,481 at Churchill Downs, tops at both tracks. He won the Preakness Stakes five times, the Belmont Stakes three times and recorded 12 Breeders’ Cup wins.
The Brush, Colo., native, who now calls Louisville home, rode 22 times in the Kentucky Derby — more than anyone except Bill Shoemaker — and won in 1992 aboard long shot Lil E. Tee. He also won four Eclipse Awards (in 1984, 1986, 1987 and 1991) as the nation’s best jockey and retired as thoroughbred racing’s career money leader, having won purses totaling $297,941,912.
But it wasn’t just his on-track success that made Day popular. His down-to-earth, humble personality made fans feel comfortable approaching him, as they did by the hundreds during autograph sessions Saturday and at Keeneland, which honored Day during its fall meet in October. Some waited as long as three hours for Day to sign.
A few fans, including Don Tucker of Tallahassee, Fla., managed to avoid the lines by corralling Day during one of his frequent visits to the winners’ circle. Tucker had Day sign a bobblehead made in the jockey’s likeness.
“He’s won a lot of races for me,” Tucker said. “His personality, his attitude, his perseverance — he’s just a super person. He’ll talk to anybody. He’s just one of the nicest athletes I’ve met.”
Churchill Downs announced plans Saturday to literally put Day — or, at least, his likeness — on a pedestal, as the track is commissioning a life-size bronze statue of the jockey that will be located in the paddock where Day mounted thousands of horses during his career.
That announcement came moments after 16-year-old jockey Randall Toups won the second race, a $25,000 starter allowance dubbed the “Pat’s Day,” aboard Three Steps Ahead.
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