The seventh race at Del Mar on Sunday wasn’t much. Bunch of plating horses, $16,000 claimers, indifferently bred, the riffraff of the track.
The winner was a 6-year-old gray who will never put anybody in mind of Secretariat. El Toreo was winning his seventh race out of 55.
But the rider made it a historic race. One for the books.
Laffit Pincay had done something only one other jockey in the history of the sport has ever done--won his 8,000th race.
There were no ceremonies. They didn’t stop the program or bronze the bridle, because of a bookkeeping glitch, a 1991 victory in Mexico City wasn’t being counted and the track thought Sunday’s was only No. 7,999.
The party will come later but, in winning, Pincay joined a very select company of immortals, sports tandems.
Only two guys have ever hit more than 700 home runs, Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron. Only two pitchers have won more than 400 games, Cy Young and Walter Johnson. Only two hitters have gotten more than 4,000 hits, Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. Only two have more than 2,000 runs batted in, Ruth and Aaron. Only two have more than 2,000 bases on balls, Ruth and Ted Williams. Only two have four or more no-hit games, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax.
To do something that has been done only once before stamps you as a person not only of monumental talent but also character. There is a price to be paid to address posterity in this way. Consistency is not only a jewel, it’s a sentence.
Consider a lifetime in which you have never tasted mashed potatoes and haven’t had an ice cream cone since you were a kid. Positively never ate a dollop of whipped cream. Skipped the dressing with the Thanksgiving turkey, to say nothing of the gravy. Passed on the custard pie. Were afraid to even look at the cheesecake. Never even drank coffee, never mind a malted milk. Could never put butter on toast--in the unlikely event you had toast in the first place. Could never order a chocolate eclair. Had to avoid salt, sugar. Even ketchup was verboten.
Never ate three meals a day. And there were days when you ate no meals. Made do with fish and poultry. Could rarely swallow steaks or lamb chops, even. Could merely chew them for the juice and spit the uneaten portions out.
What if, on the rare occasions you splurged, you had to make sure you didn’t keep it down? That’s right. Think what that kind of purging would do to your insides.
What if the only chocolate you ever ate was Ex-Lax? What if you spent half your life in a box with only your head sticking out and the temperature inside was 145 degrees?
How would you like to be restricted to 600 calories a day all your life? Street beggars in Rangoon get more nourishment.
And then you had to get on the back of a 1,200-pound animal and run a race.
That’s what Pincay had to go through for his 8,000 victories and make him 1A to Bill Shoemaker’s 1 in lifetime jockey standings.
Fame should be listed on a menu as “market price.” You don’t know until you get the bill years later what it’s going to cost.
Whatever it has cost Pincay, he thinks it’s worth it.
“Oh, yes!” he agrees. “I wouldn’t give back one ride!”
Since that includes about 32,290 rides, Pincay is talking the major part of his life. He has spent more time on horseback than Geronimo.
Some guys ride horses like a Sioux warrior circling a wagon train, or a Cossack running down peasants. Others wheedle victories out of fainter-hearted horses. Pincay doesn’t take any nonsense from a horse, but he wins races kind of the way Ruth hit homers. He instills confidence in a horse. Horses seldom quit on Pincay. Around the track, it is said they would jump over a cliff for him.
Pincay, of course, cannot explain what it is that puts him first.
“You get the stock--and you look for the holes,” he says, smiling.
But, the facts are, Pincay was winning races long before he got the mount on the, so to speak, preferred stock around a racetrack. He achieved a reputation for piloting bony nags into the picture in his native Panama long before he got to the major circuits of the United States. That’s why Fred W. Hooper imported him to ride for the millionaire’s stable. It wasn’t long before owners all over the country were clamoring for this super rider.
If there’s a lament in all this, it’s that Pincay, who is surely entitled, was not able to join one other famous tandem of racing history--those who have won five Kentucky Derbies. This pedestal belongs to Eddie Arcaro and Willie Hartack.
Pincay was barely able to avoid a shutout in this important part of a rider’s resume. That’s because California riders are pretty much restricted to California horses in that blue grass classic. And ability to run in the deeper tracks of hardboot country is not a characteristic of horses bred to run in the sunshine and mild climate--and lightning surfaces--of California racing.
Pincay has gone East with more than one front-running clunker who spit the bit in the gut-wrenching quarter-mile homestretch that is Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
In California, you were lucky if you could get 7-5 on any mount Pincay was on. He would pay no more than 5-1 on a burro.
But at Churchill Downs, he had to get on some horses he wouldn’t even have known were in the race here. Only a couple of years ago, he had the ignominy of piloting a 33-1 shot. Another year, he got on a field horse--an entry deemed to have so little chance by the track handicapper he is lumped in the betting with four or more other no-chance shadow-jumpers.
In fact, the year Pincay finally did win a Derby, 1984, on Swale, he almost let his agent talk him off the horse.
“I had won with (Swale) in the Florida Derby,” Pincay said the other day. “But when he ran second at Keeneland, my agent wanted me to take off of him and ride a horse called Tsunami Slew. But I said no.”
Pincay might have joined another select fraternity, riders who won the Triple Crown--Derby, Belmont and Preakness in the same year--but for a bad break in timing.
“Affirmed was the best horse I ever rode,” he says. “I rode him in the Hollywood Juvenile. Then, he went to Saratoga for the Hopeful (Stakes). I was supposed to ride him the next time. But (Steve) Cauthen inherited the mount.”
Cauthen won the Triple Crown on Affirmed. Pincay didn’t get back on him until the colt’s 4-year-old season.
Pincay’s only other near-miss was 1973. He rode Sham, who was probably as good a horse as ever came along in California. The trouble was, he came along the same year as Secretariat. Sham chased Secretariat to two of the greatest victories the great horse ever ran and then, in the Belmont that year, where Secretariat won by 31 lengths, Sham finally gave up and never raced again.
Pincay is not giving up. The chocolate eclairs and the pie a la mode are still in the future. The riding has become a familiar habit.
“I used to be hard on myself,” says the man who once won seven races in a single afternoon. “Now I am able to see that you can’t win every race.”
He is in stakes company, though. Ruth-Aaron, Rose-Cobb, Young-Johnson, Ryan-Koufax. And Pincay-Shoemaker.
* PINCAY GETS NO. 8,000: The Daily Racing Form says it overlooked a victory by Laffit Pincay in 1991, giving him 8,000 for his career. C5