For jockey Laffit Pincay, it has been business as usual here since he reached his milestone 8,000th victory.
But Bill Shoemaker, the only other rider to achieve 8,000 victories, is still out there on the horizon at 8,833.
It would seem almost unimaginable that Pincay, at 46, would be thinking in terms of surpassing Shoemaker. It seems so unlikely, in fact, that the idea was presented to Pincay in such a way as to allow him to laugh it off.
Instead, Pincay listened intently, seriously.
“No,” he said. “The record’s not out of reach, not if I keep on trying. I’ll keep on going for two or three years and see what I’m doing. I’ll have a much better feel then. I’ll take it from there.”
It’s too early for another countdown to what may be the most magical number in thoroughbred racing, but that number--8,833--is exactly what Pincay has in mind.
The man stays firm at 113 pounds, as long as he eats like a canary. His trademark squinting eyes are still as sharp and alert as a sea gull’s. Most important, his hands remain both soft and strong, the contradictory combination it takes to be as one with a horse.
“You have to be tough on yourself,” he was saying. “You have to give up a lot of things. You have to give up having the good times. You have to be dedicated and have a lot of personal discipline.”
A jockey, like boxers and real wrestlers, has to find a way to make himself stronger without gaining weight. Pounds are a curse. Pounds turn jocks into trainers--or exercise riders--before their time.
“I never thought I’d ride past 30 because of my weight,” Pincay said. “It was a problem from the beginning, but it’s easier to control now than it was before.”
As with many jockeys, the lack of weight was the curse in Pincay’s boyhood. His hero, as a boy in Panama, was Mickey Mantle, who had arms like a horse’s neck and legs as fragile as a thoroughbred’s.
“I was a Yankee fan and Mickey Mantle was my idol,” Pincay said. “I loved to play baseball. That was what I wanted to do, but I was too small. I didn’t want to be a student either, because I didn’t like school.”
Pincay’s father was a jockey, though he was riding in Venezuela and separated from the family. Young Pincay was raised by his mother, who was less than pleased that her son was interested in following in his father’s bootsteps.
“I made a deal with her,” he said. “I told her I would go in the mornings to the racetrack and in the afternoons to school. That’s what I did.”
Pincay was 17 in 1964 when he rode his first winner . . . on his second mount. The horse’s name was Huelen and the race was at Presidente Remon in Panama.
“It was very dark,” he recalled. “It was the last race of the day and it was so dark I was afraid they were going to cancel it. I ended up winning the race and the horse paid $58 to win. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
Laffit Pincay Jr.'s mother had a jockey on her hands, whether she liked it or not. Pincay became the leading jockey in Panama, but the Yankee fan had the U.S. circuit in mind. And if the Yankees weren’t interested, thoroughbred owner Fred Hooper was.
“You want to meet Mr. Hooper?” a Panamanian friend asked.
By 1966, after stops in Chicago and New York, Pincay found himself at Santa Anita for the 1966-67 winter meeting.
“After about two weeks, I was ready to go back to New York,” he said. “California’s the toughest place in the world to get mounts and win races.”
He stayed, though, and found ways to get mounts and win races. California has been his base since then, and he has amassed more than $170 million in winnings. No other jockey--not even Shoemaker--has won more. Pincay has been the nation’s leading rider seven times and an Eclipse Award winner five times. He has won 12 $1-million races.
Should anyone care to ask, Pincay is in the Racing Hall of Fame.
The best horse he has ever ridden?
“Affirmed,” he said.
Affirmed tops a list that includes Perrault, Spend A Buck, Capote, Skywalker, Creme Fraiche, Conquistador Cielo and Swale. Pincay won the Kentucky Derby aboard Swale. He won the Belmont three times in a row.
“I rode some great ones but none were like him,” Pincay said of Affirmed. “He was a smart horse, very, very calm. He knew I could feel that he knew what he was doing. He’d be ready to go from the moment we got into the gate. He broke in front in every race I rode him, but it was always like he was waiting to see what I wanted next. He’d be ready if I wanted to send him to the lead and he’d be ready if I wanted to take him back.”
“The only thing about Affirmed was that he’d get the lead and then he’d want to wait around and let someone catch up,” he said. “I guess he wanted races to be competitive.”
Affirmed didn’t wait around too long. He and Pincay won seven consecutive stakes together.
Pincay’s favorite horse, though, may be one who never won a stakes race, probably never ran in a stakes race. It was a horse he rode in Chicago in that first summer in the U.S.
“He was a very cheap claiming horse,” he said. “I’d just come to this country and I rode this horse to seven or eight wins in a row, all against cheap horses. I called him my little Buckpasser.”
That was not the horse’s real name--it was Buckpasser’s real name--and Pincay wasn’t sure but he thought it might have been something like Go Lite.
“He was an honest little horse,” he said.
As Pincay was approaching that 8,000-victory plateau, he was reminiscing about horses such as Huelen and Affirmed and his little Buckpasser. They were all a part of getting him where he is, where he is going.
When it came to a most satisfying experience, it had nothing to do with specific horses or specific races. That was a duel with Sandy Hawley for the riding championship at Hollywood Park.
“I thought he was an unbelievable jockey,” Pincay said. “Horses seemed to fly for him. He always seemed to be winning by four, five or six lengths.
“We were fighting for the lead in the jockey standings when I got a 10-day suspension for rough riding. I went to Hawaii and came back and I was 27 wins behind. I came back and got a new agent and we started working hard and riding hard and winning races. By the end of the meeting, I was three ahead in the jockey standings.”
The years tend to blur. He thought it might have happened in 1976, ’77 or ’78. It might have happened in one of those years, but he could well have won the riding championship in all of them. He has won riding championships 18 times at Southern California’s three tracks, but that one, in his mind, was special.
All of it adds up to a career surpassed, in victories at least, by only one man.
“Gosh,” he said, “I’ve been riding a lot of years. I’ve surprised even myself, because I never counted on anything like this. I remember getting close to Johnny Longden and passing 6,000 and suddenly I was at 7,000 and now 8,000. It’s been a matter of showing up to ride every day and liking what you’re doing.”
Injuries in this world of four-legged mayhem have also been as kind to him as can reasonably be expected.
“I’ve had a lot of broken bones but no major broken bones like arms or legs, that take a long time to heal,” he said. “I’ve broken small bones and I heal fast.”
And so it is that Shoemaker’s record remains as a goal beyond that 8,000-victory milestone. The finish line for the 8,000th victory was just another beginning.
“I think it was 1989 when I hit 7,000,” he said. “It took about four years to reach 8,000. That’s not bad. And I can ride until I’m 55--for sure.”