Monday, May 16, 2011

Are You Ready for the Winner's Circle? (Redux)

If you'll indulge me, this is a partial "rerun" of my very first Hoosier Ink blog written about this time last year. I embellished on it after this year's running of the Kentucky Derby, but it ties in with the Christian testimony of the most winning horse jockey ever at Churchill Downs, Pat Day. Pat is now a resident of Louisville, active in several local ministries and a vocal advocate of the grace that can only come from the Almighty. In my estimation, it's worth hearing again and again, and there's a valuable lesson in it for writers. But first, a little insight into the Derby since there seems to be a definite mystique and fascination with that particular event.

In the first week of May every year, Louisville, Kentucky, is invaded. Athletes, B and C-list reality stars and celebrities, society mavens, and horse owners and trainers from all over the world congregate for swanky parties, balls, and charity galas. There are parades, fashion shows and concerts by major recording artists and local bands. Leading up to Derby week, there is a balloon race and what is now termed the largest fireworks display in North America, with a gorgeous waterfall of fireworks cascading over the sides of a bridge spanning from Indiana to Kentucky. All this merriment and hoopla culminates in the shortest annual sporting event in the world, the Kentucky Derby.

This year was the 137th Run for the Roses, and it is steeped in Kentucky lore and tradition. Fancy hats! Mint juleps! Derby pie (pecan pie with chocolate and a touch of bourbon)! Millionaire’s Row at Churchill Downs! Untold amounts of money are spent before, during and after the race in merchandise, wagering, tourism, and all manner of commerce. It's a huge boon for the local economy, and there's always a festiveness in the air unlike anything I've ever experienced.

I must admit to tears in my eyes every year when I hear “My Old Kentucky Home” play at Churchill Downs almost immediately preceding the actual horse race. As a college sophomore studying abroad (more years ago than I care to remember), I was staying in a hotel near Munich, Germany, that first Saturday in May. To be honest, I wasn't even thinking of the Kentucky Derby. But when we turned on the radio and found a U.S. military station, I heard "My Old Kentucky Home" come over the airwaves clear as a bell. I dissolved into tears and bawled like a baby (it was near the end of my three months away from home and I was ready to go back home to McDonald’s and Fritos). As much as I loved that trip to Europe and the experiences it offered, there's nothing like coming home again.

Guess you have to be here to understand the mystery and the craziness that is the Kentucky Derby. As a Christian, I have to shake my head over the fact that most downtown offices don’t let employees off early to observe Good Friday, but almost everyone gets off to pay homage to horse racing the Friday before Derby. You must understand that in the gorgeous, rolling hills of Kentucky, the thoroughbreds bathe in marble tubs and are more pampered than most people. It's a way of life foreign for most of the rest of the world.

Yes, in many ways the excess is nothing short of obscene, but in other ways, I find it absolutely fascinating. I’ve never been to the actual Kentucky Derby, and have no intention of ever being in the infield. I usually watch the Derby from the “best chair in the house” in our family room. Even those many years I lived away from Kentuckiana, I almost always watched the mile-and-a-quarter race, the most prestigious and first leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

In late May last year, I was privileged to hear one of the most winning horse jockeys of all time, Pat Day, speak at an event. He’s a devout Christian now and actively involved in several local Louisville area Christian ministries. What a testimony he shared, complete with a lesson for the writer in all of us. I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to hear Pat's testimony and speak with him personally. In some ways, his story put another “spin” on the whole insanity that is the Kentucky Derby (he won one Derby and many other races).

Here’s my abbreviated version of Pat’s story from his message that evening:

Pat Day didn't want to be a jockey, but God sure made him one.

Growing up in Colorado, Pat was hired as a teenager to help out on a ranch owned by a family who'd moved from Texas. Known as Bible thumpers and "Jesus freaks," they demonstrated a rare, gentle compassion. The lady of the house eventually began telling him about the Lord, hauling out her flannel graph board and her biblical figures. Pat sat and half-listened, hoping no one would see him there. One afternoon, sitting at the kitchen table, he prayed the sinner's prayer, as much to satisfy this kind Christian woman as much as anything else.

He had aspirations of being a champion bull rider, but kept getting thrown off, time and time again. He climbed into the saddle, becoming the most reluctant horse jockey, and found he was good at it. Really good. So he kept at it, and he started winning races.

Becoming one of the most winning jockeys on the racing circuit in the early 1980s, Pat won a major event in New York. When legendary sportscaster Jim McKay interviewed him on live television, Pat remembers saying, "I did it! I did it!" He didn't thank the owner, the trainer or the horse. He claimed the victory for himself. To this "Day," it is one of his deepest, most cringe-inducing regrets.

Not long after, lying in the dark of his hotel room, Pat turned on the television and listened to the program of a well-known televangelist. He listened to the words of Christ's sacrifice for our sins, and drank in the words of grace, redemption and forgiveness. Lost in a haze of booze and drugs at the time, it was only then that he remembered praying at the kitchen table with the loving Christian woman in Colorado all those years before. It was also on that night that Pat realized his personal need for the Savior to save him from himself.

Pat Day may be diminutive in size, but he is certainly statuesque in the eyes of our loving Father.

How many of us writers, like Pat, have a goal in mind, only to be thrown out of the saddle, again and again. It's all in how we react that makes the difference. We can stay on the ground, wallowing in our misfortune and misery, or we can stand up, dust off the seat of our pants, and get back in the saddle. Contest scores, critiques, rejections – and skewered customer ratings if anyone knows my trials the last few days – can be humbling, but they prove how hardy we are. The Lord has gifted us with words. Let's use them wisely. Stand up, not be ashamed of the gospel, and proclaim His glory and His word, and He will prevail. And when we reach a goal, no matter how small, or how significant, let's give the glory to the greatest Creator of all.

Blessings, my friends. Let your light shine!

Below is the link for Pat Day's website. As he says, "The Lord has orchestrated a great career."

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