Even after winning 8,834 thoroughbred races, Laffit Pincay Jr. is not quite a household name. The jockey has never received the adulation that the general public and the media bestowed on Bill Shoemaker, whose record for career victories he broke yesterday.
Yet Pincay's accomplishments-- culminated by his historic victory aboard Irish Nip at Hollywood Park--may be unique in all sports. What other athlete has been able to stay at the elite level of his game as long as the 52-year-old Pincay?
Plenty of athletes toil well past their prime in pursuit of career milestones. Baseball players often struggle in their twilight years to get their 3000th hit. Shoemaker rode until he was 59, but his skills had declined pitifully long before he retired.
However, as Pincay made his final charge for the record, he ranked atop the jockey standings at Hollywood--ahead of champion riders such as Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens and Kent Desormeaux. His skills are still formidable. He won No. 8,830 with a brilliant tactical ride, setting a slow pace and guiding Lazy Lode to victory in the $400,000 Hollywood Turf Cup. He won No. 8,833 Thursday in typical vigorous Pincay fashion, cracking his mount with the whip 20 times to win in a photo finish. He has stayed so good for so long partly because he is a physical marvel, but largely because of the self-discipline and determination that he has displayed since the beginning of his career.
Pincay started riding in the United States in 1966, when he was 19, but his work ethic had already been formed during two years as a jockey in his native Panama. In one of the countless interviews he has granted recently, he told the Thoroughbred Times: "I remember the first horse I took to the track to gallop in Panama. I made a promise that I was going to do the best I could in this profession--to be dedicated. . . . If I wanted to succeed, I knew I had to work hard and be really responsible."
Those sentiments may sound trite, but Pincay lived by them and quickly established himself as one of the best in the profession. He was the nation's top money-winning jockey for five straight years, from 1970 to 1974. He won the first of his five Eclipse Awards in 1971, and was inducted in the Racing Hall of Fame in 1975.
Asked to name the race that meant the most to him, he unhesitatingly named Swale's victory in the 1984 Kentucky Derby: "That was my number one win. I wanted to win that race for so many year's." Pincay's 1-for-19 record in the Derby has denied him the recognition that always goes to the winner of America's most famous race, and perhaps this is the reason he never attained the fame that Shoe (with four Derby favorites) and Eddie Arcaro (five wins) did.
Besides, to appreciate Pincay fully, you had to watch him day-to-day, in routine claiming races as well as the big stakes. The California fans who did so revered him. They respected the fact that he gave an all-out effort in every race. And they loved his style. The antithesis of Shoemaker, who relied on finesse, Pincay won races with sheer power; when he put his mounts to a drive in the stretch, horses who looked hopelessly beaten regularly surged back to win.
The power came from Pincay's muscular physique, but his exceptional body was a curse as well as a blessing. Carrying all that muscle, Pincay had to live a life of self-denial in order to maintain his riding weight at 117 pounds. For most of his career, he allowed himself to consume only about 650 calories per day, and he had the discipline to stick to that regimen. But in recent years the constant dieting depleted his energy. "You need strength to compete," he said. "I knew it was affecting me."
Pincay's fortunes had declined so sharply two years ago that he considered leaving southern California and exiling himself to the relatively minor league northern California circuit. But he was spared this indignity by relying on the strengths that had sustained him through his career. One was his meticulous attention to his own body. He altered his eating habits in a way that might seem insignificant to anybody else but was radical for him: he started adding fruit and oil to his diet, while remaining at 850 calories a day. His strength improved noticeably; his friend Shoemaker made a visit to the jockeys' room and told him, "I don't know what you're doing, but you're sure riding better."
During the lean years, Pincay never lost his determination and positive attitude. Asked if he considered retiring, he replied, "Many times I thought about giving up, but the reason I didn't was not because of the record. The reason was the love of the game; the love of riding horses; being in the jockeys' room with my friends."
(Shoemaker has been one of those friends for many years. Every time Pincay has talked about the record, he has paid homage to the man whose milestone he was pursuing. After surpassing it, he said: "I just broke the record of the greatest rider who ever lived.")
Rejuvenated, Pincay started getting more good mounts this fall from the leading California trainers, who recognized that he was anything but over the hill. Pincay is doing so well now that he deflects all questions about retirement. "I'm feeling very good and I'm riding some good horses," he said, "and I'm enjoying myself more than at any time in my whole life as a rider."
Pincay enjoyed a grand celebration yesterday, as fellow jockeys carried him to the winner's circle and paid tribute to him, amid the cheers from longtime fans in the grandstand.
But he did not view No. 8,834 as the end of a life's quest, and he won't be resting on his laurels--which would be totally out of character. Asked what his next goal was, he said, "Maybe 9,000." He'll be back at Hollywood today, pursuing that objective, riding with the vigor that has been his trademark for more than three decades.