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After 30 years, Laffit Pincay’s win on Affirmed in the Hollywood Gold Cup still glitters

As horse racing struggles to define its present, it is of value to recall some of its glorious past.

Take, for example, June 24, 1979. Hollywood Park’s prestigious Hollywood Gold Cup. Thirty years ago.

The same race will be run Saturday, the 70th edition of a tradition that began with Seabiscuit winning in 1938. By 1979, the Gold Cup purse had been raised to a then-unthinkable $500,000, in an era when crowds of 75,000 for big races were not out of the question.

Saturday’s purse will be $700,000, which generates only marginal excitement in an era when Triple Crown races offer $1 million each, a race in Dubai is worth $6 million and the Breeders’ Cup has two days of racing with almost all its races $1 million and above.

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Today, horse racing throws money at its problems and hopes a generally uninterested public will be turned on. Usually, that begins to happen about the time developing stars are shipped off to the breeding barn, never to be heard from again.

Thirty years ago, Affirmed came to race in the Hollywood Gold Cup and there was little question that the public was turned on.

Affirmed was a star. He was the second straight Triple Crown champion, his sweep in ’78 following Seattle Slew’s in ’77. Memories of the great Secretariat’s similar sweep in ’73 were still vivid.

As Seattle Slew had done, Affirmed kept racing as a 4-year-old. Stud duty could wait. There was an eager racing public to appease first.

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When he arrived for the Gold Cup, Affirmed had already run 25 races. After he won his way into the Kentucky Derby with a victory in the Santa Anita Derby in April ’78, he ran another race two weeks later, before the Derby. Then he swept through the Triple Crown over a five-week stretch in May and June, winning three thrilling duels with Alydar.

After an ordeal like that, today’s thoroughbreds would be packed in ice and flown to Hawaii to rest for six months.

Steve Cauthen rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown, but in early ’79, as trainer Laz Barrera raced his superstar in pursuit of a second straight horse-of-the-year award, Cauthen went into a terrible slump. He lost aboard Affirmed four straight times -- the great horse would fail to win only seven times in his 29 starts -- and so Barrera looked for new hands at the controls.

The story of how those hands turned out to belong to Laffit Pincay Jr. is a classic.

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Pincay rode Affirmed for the first time in 1977 when the horse was a 2-year-old, and won. But it was decided that Affirmed would go East for further races, and that put Pincay and his agent, George O’Brien, in a tough spot. They had a good business going in California, owners and trainers who deserved loyalty.

“George said we can always get Affirmed back later,” Pincay says.

And so Cauthen got the ride and Pincay’s Triple Crown.

“I still think about that a lot,” says Pincay, 62, and retired since 2003. “But it was just meant to happen that way.”

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O’Brien eventually made amends, not that Pincay blamed him.

Cauthen was on suspension at the time of the April ’78 Santa Anita Derby, and Affirmed was scheduled to run in that important Kentucky Derby prep. Agents for Pincay and fellow star jockey Angel Cordero pushed hard for the ride. They decided to settle it with a coin flip.

O’Brien made the toss, his rider won, and Pincay’s winning Santa Anita Derby ride stayed in Barrera’s memory so that, when Cauthen went into his slump the next year, Pincay got the ride back. He rode Affirmed to a 10-length victory in the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita and finished off Affirmed’s career with six more victories.

“If Angel had won that coin flip,” Pincay says, “he would have gotten the ride when Stevie went into his slump.”

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Pincay still has the coin, a nickel encased in clear plastic that he shows off proudly.

The $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup was the biggest purse for which Affirmed would run. The Kentucky Derby offered $125,000 that year, and the Preakness and Belmont $150,000 each. Were he to win the Gold Cup, Affirmed would become the first horse to pass the $2-million mark.

“Laz told me in the paddock before the race to just put him wherever he was comfortable,” Pincay says. “He knew Affirmed had the speed to go to the front, or the speed to come back and wait.”

Affirmed, carrying top weight of 132 pounds, broke from an inside post and was pretty much forced to stay there as a turf specialist named Sirlad stayed right on his shoulder.

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“I wasn’t so worried about the weight,” Pincay says. “I knew he was the best horse, and the 132 wasn’t a problem. I was worried about being on the rail. That hadn’t been the place to be at Hollywood Park the whole meeting. Riders were breaking and getting out to the middle as fast as they could.”

Sirlad stayed right with Affirmed, all the way around, even nudging in front two or three times. When they turned for home, Sirlad still had optimum position on Affirmed, plus some run left in him. But Affirmed, as he had done so often against Alydar, refused to cave and slowly pulled away to win by three-quarters of a length.

“Sirlad was trying hard, right to the end,” Pincay says. “But Affirmed was the best.”

Pincay won 9,530 races, and rode in nearly 50,000. But when asked whether Affirmed was the best he ever rode, Pincay doesn’t even give the question mark time to form.

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“Yes,” he says.

There are 13 nice horses in today’s Gold Cup, including star filly Life Is Sweet and last year’s winner, Mast Track. Thirty years ago, nobody would have dared use such a bland word as “nice” to describe the Hollywood Gold Cup field, especially the horse with a jockey in pink silks named Pincay.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Staked in SoCal

Affirmed’s major racing wins, many in Southland:

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Youthful Stakes (1977)

Hollywood Juvenile Stakes (1977)

Sanford Stakes (1977)

Hopeful Stakes (1977)

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Futurity Stakes (1977)

Laurel Futurity (1977)

San Felipe Stakes (1978)

Santa Anita Derby (1978)

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Hollywood Derby (1978)

Kentucky Derby (1978)

Preakness Stakes (1978)

Belmont Stakes (1978)

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Jim Dandy Stakes (1978)

Strub Stakes (1979)

Santa Anita Handicap (1979)

Californian Stakes (1979)

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Hollywood Gold Cup (1979)

Woodward Stakes (1979)

Jockey Club Gold Cup (1979)


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