A 20-to-1 shot named Cookin Vickie opened a four-length lead midway through a race at Del Mar, but started to weaken perceptibly on the final turn. As the odds-on favorite, Peninsula Girl, charged alongside her, anyone who bet on the long shot might have torn up his tickets. But the jockey aboard Cookin Vickie hadn't given up. Without using his whip, he pushed and shoved, vigorously and rhythmically, trying to coax a last surge of energy out of the tired filly. And Cookin Vickie responded to this encouragement. She fought back and reclaimed the lead, giving Laffit Pincay Jr. the 8,769th victory of his career.
In Pincay's heyday, his mounts made so many improbable resurgences like this one that the jockey's admirers in the press box had a name for the phenomenon: the Laffit Power Play. Pincay was so strong, so powerful that he could seemingly make horses bend to his will.
This doesn't happen so often nowadays, because jockeys don't get to exhibit their skills noticeably when they are riding 20-to-1 shots. Pincay's services aren't in great demand any more; a few years ago, most members of the racing community thought he was washed up. But at the age of 52 he is again riding with skill, power and determination, because he is chasing history. He is 62 wins from Bill Shoemaker's record of 8,833 career victories, and he is consumed by the quest.
"It's the best record in racing," he said. "I'm going to break the record of the greatest rider who ever lived. It's something I'm very proud of."
Pincay has reached almost every other important milestone in the sport. He has won five Eclipse Awards, more than any other rider; he has been the top money-winning jockey in seven years; he has captured four Triple Crown and seven Breeders' Cup races. Yet people in racing marvel less at these achievements than at the powerful style with which Pincay has accomplished them. Pincay looks at himself much the way others do, and sees his successes as well as his failures in the context of the way he maintains his body.
Even at 52, Pincay has a torso so rippling with muscles that anyone who sees him shirtless would assume he is an obsessive bodybuilder. But Pincay didn't sculpt his physique. "I've been this way since I was 17," he said. His power has been his great natural asset as a rider, but at the same time his body has also been his curse. Carrying all that muscle, Pincay's weight has always been near the upper limit at which jockeys can ride, and his efforts to stay at 117 pounds are legendary in his profession.
There is a well-known story about Pincay and trainer Wayne Lukas making a transcontinental plane trip together. As Lukas ate his dinner and dessert, Pincay put a single peanut on the tray in front of him; took his plastic knife and cut it in half; chewed and savored one piece and then the other. That was his dinner and dessert.
In his youth, Pincay could eat minimally and still retain the energy to exercise horses in the morning and ride with vigor in the afternoon. But as he reached his forties, the constant dieting took a toll on him. Pincay stopped exercising horses in the morning, and lost many of the key contacts that enable jockeys to get top mounts. His energy flagged in the afternoon. "You need strength to compete," he said. "I knew it was affecting me. I didn't feel that I was riding good." Neither did the rest of the racing community. Pincay didn't have a trainer -- as Shoemaker had Charlie Whittingham -- who would keep putting him on top stakes horses even though his skills were starting to fade. Pincay was riding bad horses and not riding them well. He announced that he was about to leave Southern California and finish his career at the San Francisco tracks. That way, he figured, he would be able to break Shoemaker's record more easily -- even if it was an inglorious way to break it.
But before demoting himself to the minor leagues, Pincay tried altering his regimen. He allows himself a diet of 850 calories a day. For breakfast he eats fruit (something he had never allowed himself before) and for both lunch and dinner he typically eats either chicken or fish with vegetables. He takes vitamins and supplements, and he goes to the gym every morning for cardio exercises and stretching.
This routine may sound spartan to anybody else, but it has rejuvenated Pincay during the past two years. "I feel much better -- I'm more aggressive out there," he said. "I'm riding better, and I don't think trainers are hesitating as much to put me on horses." This winter he ranked third in the jockey standings at Santa Anita; he is No. 9 at Del Mar -- a status that is no disgrace considering that this is the nation's best riding colony and he is competing against athletes half his age. When he breaks Shoemaker's record, he won't do it in the manner of so many over-the-hill athletes who limp pitifully toward a last great milestone. He'll do it while bearing a strong resemblance to the younger Laffit Pincay, whose powerful style became legendary in the sport.