May 30, 2009
I am laying one finger on the Kentucky Derby trophy. It is small, smaller and far less flashy than a lot of the other trophies on Laffit Pincay Jr.'s shelves -- much less gaudy than any of my parents' bowling trophies. It doesn't need to be flashy: Hello, it's the Kentucky Derby. Pincay won it in 1984. The little horse on top is broken, and he sets the cup aside to have it fixed. Then his cellphone starts ringing: The ringtone is an old song with the line, "No more love on the run," which strikes me as sad because Pincay, 62, has been out of the running since 2003, when he injured his neck in what turned out to be his last race. For seven years, he was the world's winningest jockey; now, he'd rather sing the praises of his son, broadcaster Laffit Pincay III, who talks about the ponies on TV instead of riding them. Next Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the last jewel in the Triple Crown, is raking in bets and headlines for the sport of kings. But in Southern California, Hollywood Park may be bulldozed, Santa Anita is on the block and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is talking about cashing in on Del Mar racetrack's seaside real estate. It's a good time to hear one of racing's most renowned jockeys on life in a sport that's having problems in the far turn.
I know everyone asks you this: What's it like to win the Kentucky Derby?
It's the greatest feeling. There were times when I thought I was gonna win and something happened. A couple of times, I thought I had won it for sure, but I got into trouble. And there were great horses that beat me, like Secretariat and Spectacular Bid. So I got to the point that I thought the race wasn't for me.
Not jinxed, but not meant for me to win. I knew  was probably my last chance. When I passed that wire, I just -- the feeling is unbelievable. You see 100,000 people cheering for your horse and you ... it's just a fantastic feeling. I wanted to celebrate, but the next day, I had a big, important race at Hollywood Park. So I took the plane that night and flew to California. I didn't even have a drink or nothing, nothing, nothing.
Do you remember the first time you got on a horse?
I must have been about 11, maybe 12. I used to stay in the summer with my grandfather in the country [in Panama]. My friends and I used to catch the horses that were loose and [ride] them to the river so we didn't have to walk. When I was about 15, I told my mother that I wanted to be a jockey. She didn't like it -- it was dangerous, you know. And then I told her, "If you don't let me go to the track, I won't go to school."
What was your first professional race like?
I remember going to the post: "Boy, am I dreaming or what!" And then the horse, he finished last. The next week, same horse -- I won.
Did you talk to the horses in Spanish or English?
Most of the time I spoke to them in English, "Oah baby, oah baby," to relax them.
You've won nearly 10,000 races. How many have you run?
More than 50,000.
How many times have you broken your collarbone?
By next year, Hollywood Park could be torn down, Santa Anita could be sold, and now the governor wants to sell Del Mar racetrack to help the deficit. What's going on?
It's terrible news. Unfortunately, the economy is just ruining racing in a lot of countries. In Argentina, it's good; I attribute that to slot machines at the racetrack. Hopefully, [if Del Mar is sold] someone will buy it who wants to keep racing there. But he would probably make more money if he were to destroy it and build condos or [a] shopping center.
What would it take to get more people to come to the track?
Let 'em come for free. They're gonna lose their money [betting] most of the time.
A filly won the Preakness this month -- pretty unusual?
Very seldom do you see a filly win in one of those big races. It's like males and females -- I don't think women can compete with men in all sports, but once in a while you see a female compete with males, like [jockey] Julie Krone. She's retired, but she was a leading rider.
Did a woman ever beat you?
Let me see, I think Robyn Smith beat me one time by a nose at Santa Anita.
Jockey Calvin Borel has a chance to win his own Triple Crown next week at Belmont -- but on different horses. Ever hear of that?
I've never seen that. He might do it too. He was smart to switch from one horse [Mine That Bird, winner of the Kentucky Derby] to the other [Rachel Alexandra, the Preakness winner].
Was it hard at first, watching other people race when you couldn't anymore?
At the beginning, it was very hard. I didn't watch racing for a long time, a long time -- months. I couldn't watch races. And then the first time I watched a race, a horse went down.
Have you ridden horses that had to be destroyed?
Oh yeah, it's terrible. Many times a horse broke down on me, and I made it stop somehow. It takes so much strength to make him stop. And I got off and I could see the broken leg and I know he's got to be put down. I get so sick. I feel like throwing up.
What do you say to critics who say this is cruel to horses?
The horses are well taken care of. Let's say in baseball, a pitcher hits the guy in the head and hurts him really bad. They're gonna suspend the sport because of that?
Do you dream about riding?
A few times I have. When I was riding, I never, never, never ever dreamed about winning a race or losing a race or anything like that -- never. Now, once in a while, I dream about riding, riding in a race and trying to win.
This interview was edited and excerpted from taped and written transcripts. An archive of Morrison's interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.
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