The sights and sounds of the holiday season were evident this past week at Golden Gate Fields. There was a pony horse dressed up as a reindeer, Christmas carols coming from the trumpet of David Hardeman and spirited sweaters to shield the patrons from the chilly weather.
Another sign of the season was the annual grooms Christmas party. This was a night that trainers, jockeys and track management carried soda trays, cleaned plates and gave out gifts to the kids, to thank the grooms for all the work they do with the horses throughout the year.(Above jockey Kyle Frey hands out gifts).
“I’ve been here since 1984 and it was going on before that” said Charlie Dougherty, Director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers Association. “We want to make sure that all the families at the track have a nice Christmas.”
Each year, the trainers association, the Race Track Chaplaincy of America and Golden Gate Fields get together and plan, fund and run the event. They start collecting toys in October and come mid-December, the daunting task is complete.
The turf club was the setting as the grooms and their families were treated to dinner, night long musical entertainment and a piñata for the kids. With a visit to Santa Clause, each child was given a book by one of santa’s helpers. The night concluded with a toy give away, in which each of the over 150 kids in attendance received a bag of goodies. In addition, bikes were raffled off for the kids and numerous drawing prizes went to the adults.
However, this years’ party was a little different. A special guest was at the event, and it was none other than Hall of Fame jockey, Pat Day. Day, who retired with 8,803 wins, was brought out to the bay area by Jeanne Wasserman, who runs the nearby Pleasanton Off Track betting facility. Wasserman had met Day previously, and was taking part in the food drive in coordination with the Chaplaincy. She figured there would be no better draw than to have Day in for a visit.
Day, who ended his career in 2005, had found religion late in his riding career. Since he stopped riding, he has been a part of the race track chaplaincy and dedicated his life to the higher power.
“Coming here gives me an opportunity to show support for the ministry (led locally by Chaplain Chris Belluomini) and be part of the Christmas festivities here,“ Day said. “I feel blessed that I had a wonderful career and I’m able to use that as a flat-form to spread the word of Jesus and bless those who are in the sport of racing today.”
And there were plenty that were just as honored to meet him, as he was to still be in the sport.
Prior to the grooms party, Day toured the Golden Gate Fields facility and went to the jockeys room to meet and say a prayer with those in attendance. He also used the time to reminisce riding against the likes of Russell Baze and Frank Alvarado.
The next day, the Pleasanton site had its food drive underway and Day was the guest attraction. He posed for pictures, signed autographs and talked racing with anyone that had a question while spending the whole day there. Stories of his rides on Easy Goer, Louis Quatorze, Tabasco Cat and Lil E. Tee were the topic of many questions. The ironic part of the weekend was that Day said his most memorable Kentucky Derby win was on Lil E. Tee in 1992 and that happens to be the race he beat Casual Lies, who was trained by Pleasanton’s own, Shelley Riley.
As with many former jockeys that use their success to try and bolster horse racing when they are done, Day is one of the best. I had the honor or meeting Laffit Pincay Jr. this summer when he came out to the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds to have a question and answer session he participated in with Russell Baze. I had time to sit down with both Pincay and Day prior to their events and came away thoroughly impressed with how each handle their celebrity status. Both are the consummate professionals and both thrive to keep the sport of horse racing alive.
It amazes me to know that while I can’t remember what I had for breakfast two days ago, they can both replay a race from 10 years ago like it was playing on video in front of them.
I enjoyed meeting Pat Day and I left the grooms party impressed with the job that Charlie Dougherty (and his main helper Glenda), Chaplain Chris Bellluomini, Jeanne Wasserman and the staff at GGF did to make the night special for those who don’t get a lot of recognition.
It was a job well done and all should be proud.