As Pincay Learned, Breaks in the Game Happen in All Sports

The shoulder is in a sling, but Laffit Pincay, who has ridden more winners than any jockey except one, isn't complaining.

Pain has vanished.

"I was lucky," says Pincay. "It was a clean fracture of the right collarbone. I spent only one night in the hospital."

And how did this accident come to Laffit, 43?

It came driving, of all things, in a harness race, a game of chance in which Pincay doesn't know a pacer from a bighorn sheep.

But he volunteers with riding colleagues from Santa Anita to participate in a harness race at Los Alamitos, from which money goes to a fund helping disabled jocks.

And, to condense a long and agonizing account, the pacer Laffit is chauffeuring flips--and he joins the disabled he was aiming to help.

With a break, if you will pardon the extravagant wit, he could be out only a month, meaning it shouldn't cost him much more than $100,000.

Is he in the habit of engaging in sports alien to his own?

"I have played baseball," he recalls. "I also have played tennis and I have skied. But this is the first time I ever have been hurt in anything except thoroughbred racing."

In his depression, Laffit is comforted with the reminder that what has happened to him is an ancient story of sports--athletes racked up doing something they shouldn't be doing.

Years ago, when Johnny Unitas was at his crest, we recall a headline in a Baltimore newspaper, "UNITAS SURGERY SUCCESS--IN A CAST SIX WEEKS."

Had this hero been set upon, sacked and knocked out by the Bears? Not exactly. He had fallen victim of that dangerous contact sport, paddle tennis, rupturing an Achilles' tendon that threatened to remove him from football.

In his prime, Sparky Lyle, ace of the Yankee bullpen, tore an ankle ligament playing basketball. If Lyle, a baseball player, went out playing basketball, Norm Nixon, a basketball player, went out playing baseball.

Someone talks Norm into a softball game. The fleet-footed center fielder, who would make the world forget Willie Mays, trips in pursuit of a fly.

The diagnosis: complete rupture of the quadriceps tendon. Norm goes into a cast for six weeks--and the Clippers are treated for shock.

We recall in the week of the Santa Anita Handicap that the jocks got up a charity softball game. A rider named Fernando Alvarez is due to sit astride the favorite, only Fernando breaks an ankle sliding into second.

Why would he play softball when, just as easily, he could have sustained the same injury, or one worse, driving a harness horse?

Al Unser, the distinguished racing machine artist, goes back to Indy one year for the 500. Relaxing outside his motel, he decides to show fellow drivers how to "wheel" a motorcycle, which is to say, stand it on its rear wheel.

The next wheels Al encounters are those under a stretcher, wheeling him into the hospital with a broken leg.

When John Hadl was functioning as quarterback in the National Football League, he lectured repeatedly to young players on the perils of motorbikes.

John wouldn't ride anything more dangerous than horses, one of which puts him in intensive care with a fractured skull.

Of course, the most celebrated case in sports involving grief away from one's own arena was that of Jim Lonborg, a 22-game winner in 1967, voted the Cy Young Award. In the World Series that year, he started three games for the Red Sox.

Well, the Series ends and, shortly, Jim heads for California's High Sierra, paradise for skiers. He busts up a knee so severely that he is able to win but six games the following season and just about schusses his way out of baseball.

Now a dentist in New England, Lonborg is a great fellow. We asked him one day if, at the top of his baseball career, he had regrets going skiing.

"Not in the least," he responded. "When there is so much to do in life, you can't sit around like a paranoid and have meals sent into your room. You have to get out and enjoy yourself."

Jim thought a moment, then added:

"Besides, statistics show that only four people of every 100 who ski suffer major injuries. The odds were in my favor."

If the truth is known, the odds were in Pincay's favor, too. A trainer at the scene fixed the price on Laffit's taking a spill at "a zillion-to-one."

You go to Las Vegas, taking the short end on this, and you walk away a zillionaire.

Steve Garvey played tennis while engaged in baseball but, pursuing Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games, refrained from doing household chores.

"When something needs fixing from a ladder," said Steve, "I give the job to a craftsman."

Garvey wouldn't do himself in saving a tab. After 1,207 straight games, he went out in a collision with a catcher.

Clubs offering massive sums to players today often specify in contracts what the worker is able to do off the field. Once signing a big contract with Houston, Don Sutton confided:

"I am not permitted to ski, scuba dive or sky-dive. I am not allowed to play tennis, hunt or hang-glide. I must not play basketball, football, racquetball or handball. And it violates my contract if I submerge in a diving bell."

As independent contractors, jockeys aren't subject to such restrictions, meaning that if Laffit Pincay cashes in a zillion-to-one driving a pacer, he may want to nibble for a price next driving a trotter.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World