It may come as a surprise to learn that the world's top jockey is no longer—depending on how you view such matters—Bill Shoemaker. Lester Piggott or Yves Saint-Martin. He is, instead, a vibrantly muscular Panamanian named Laffit Pincay (pronounced La-feet Pinkeye). With his skill he has stolen so many races from the opposition that fans have begun calling him Pincay the Pirate. Even Shoemaker, now 40 and curtailing his riding activity, hesitates not a flick of the whip to note, "Laffit is the next champion, whether he beats my lifetime record [6,263 wins] or not. He's the finest rider to come along since I've been in a position to judge."
The 25-year-old Pincay has few interests outside of racing. It is the sum and substance of his life and he has funneled his immense supply of energy toward one goal—becoming the world's most successful jockey. This season he has achieved that rating.
Pincay made a runaway of the jockeys' race at the 1971 Santa Anita and Hollywood Park meetings, becoming the first rider in 18 years to thrash Shoemaker in head-to-head competition. At Hollywood his 106 victories (Shoe's total: 78) broke the record of 105 set in 1948 by Johnny Longden. Moving east in late July, Pincay faced riders at Saratoga who had the advantage of having established themselves with New York trainers during the preceding months. But Pincay topped the winners' list at that track, too, and as Aqueduct moves into its final weeks no rider stands a chance of beating him, barring injury or suspension. Last Saturday, with his victory on the 13-to-l shot Red Reality in the $60,000 Stuyvesant Handicap, he moved 14 wins ahead of his closest rival.
Every day he rides, Pincay is now setting records. In September he passed Braulio Baeza's earnings mark for one season of just over $3 million; it would not be surprising if Pincay's mounts by the end of this year had collected $3.7 million: his share of the winnings is roughly 10 percent.
Life for Laffit was not always richly rewarding. He was the second of four children of a Panamanian jockey. When his parents divorced, his father, who is now a trainer, moved to Venezuela. "As a kid I hardly ever saw him," Pincay says. "He was away in Caracas. I know he came to New York on at least one occasion—to ride Primordial II and win the Display Handicap at Aqueduct in 1964. I used to meet him once in a while, but seldom now."
For many Panama City boys—and Pincay was one—school was tolerable only if it was mixed with long sessions at the city's lone racetrack. At 15 Laffit got a job as a hot-walker, mucking out stalls without pay. "I would work at the track from six in the morning until 11:30," Pincay recalls. "Then I would go to school from two until six or seven at night. It was a year before I could exercise horses, and still another year before I started breezing and working them out of the gate. During this time I was being helped tremendously by an old man, a former rider with a great deal of courage named Bolivar Moreno. He had started a school to teach boys like me to become jockeys. Before my time, such riders as Manuel Ycaza, Braulio Baeza and Heliodoro Gustines mostly taught themselves through experience on the track—or they were helped by the trainers and the families they worked for. But by the time Jorge Velasquez and I came along, Moreno had his school set up. And after us Jorge Tejeira studied with him also."
Moreno's courses, at least the preliminary lessons, were based on Eddie Arcaro's series on the Art of Race Riding, which had appeared in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (June 17, 1957 et seq.). "Moreno told us that this showed the best way to do things," Pincay says. "Then he would put a barrel down for us to sit on and use some cord to make stirrups and reins. He would lecture—'You should do this and that,' and we would be trying to study the pictures of Arcaro and do this and do that the way Arcaro demonstrated. All this time I was reading about the big names like Shoemaker, Longden, Rotz, Turcotte and our own Baeza and Ycaza. It seemed impossible that I would ever come to the United States. I never thought I could make it; it was so difficult."
Pincay's opinion of himself changed as soon as he began regular race riding as an apprentice. In two years he rode over 400 winners and was Panama's leading rider, which gave him supreme confidence. He was brought to the U.S. by Fred W. Hooper. If Hooper had not made a name for himself by winning a Kentucky Derby with the first horse he ever bought (Hoop, Jr., who cost $10,200), racing would remember this man as the discoverer and sponsor of Panamanian riders. "I'm batting 3 for 3," he said not long ago, "and I'm scared if I take another chance I might spoil my average."
In 1960, Panamanian Owner Ramon Navaro first tipped Hooper on a promising young rider, Braulio Baeza. Would Hooper please give the boy a chance? Hooper did, and that seemed to work out rather well. Two years later Navaro tugged at Hooper's sleeve once more and recommended Velasquez. In 1965 Navaro told Hooper about Pincay. The next summer Laffit joined the Hooper stable at Arlington Park. The partnership was an immediate success, despite the fact the young rider could speak little English and was facing at his first race meeting such formidable competitors as Bill Hartack, John Sellers and, later on, Shoemaker himself. "At the time Mr. Hooper had a good filly named Teacher's Art," Pincay remembers. "He took another boy off her, saying he'd pay him for the ride anyway; he put me on that day and we won easy. I was lucky to start fast. Out of the first 11 mounts I think I won eight races, and even though I came late to Chicago 1 finished as the third leading rider. Then we went to Hawthorne Park and I was leading rider. Then on to New York, where I believe I finished third."
Vince DeGregory, who earlier had helped launch the career of Jockey Angel Cordero Jr., became Pincay's agent two years ago and further increased Laffit's success. "I just can't say enough about my boy," says DeGregory. "He's a combination of Bob Ussery finishing and Baeza sitting still. He rides as well on the lead as he does from behind. He can switch whips, stick-ride or hand-ride with anyone. He doesn't get excited and is a logical thinker. He's so anxious to be helpful that he picked up English in five months, and now he can make sensible suggestions to trainers about equipment and strategy."
Pincay credits his success to three things: hard work, desire and DeGregory, who strives as hard to get him rides on the best claimers as he does to nail down jobs on horses like the probable 3-year-old champion Bold Reason. "I have a great wish to be the best," says Pincay with easy confidence. "If you get the opportunity you've got to take it when you can. We Panamanians come here with more experience under tougher conditions. At home we start working with broken-down horses. Another thing, the 2-year-olds in Panama are not broken as carefully as they are here so it is a lot more dangerous. You've got to be better."
On riding style, 5'1", 109-pound Pincay has positive opinions: "I don't try to copy anyone. I do what is natural for me. If you try to model yourself on somebody else, I don't think that's right; it's not giving your best concentration to your own style—or to the horse you're on. Sure, I like to look good, but on some horses, when you have to whip and get into a horse, there's no way you can look good."
Pincay, unlike many less enthusiastic jockeys, seeks to please trainers. He rides scrupulously to orders though, as he says, "most of the time in races things don't happen the way trainers think they should. I'd like to be able to use my own judgment, and if I am given a choice, I prefer coming from behind. In the relationship between jockey and horse I think perhaps the jockey is 30 percent. But remember, it is the horse who runs, and at times the horse is 80 percent. Remember, too, that a really good horse will win with almost anybody riding. But on the other hand, a superior jockey can help an average horse, and sometimes I believe when a jockey is riding with confidence he helps his mount. The horse feels it, and in some strange way they manage to get together. If you don't win races regularly you lose your confidence. Then you try harder and that can be no good, too, because sometimes the harder you try, the more things you do wrong. Soon you find yourself in a slump. Other times you can ride bad horses and they all win. Everything is beautiful!
"Slumps are part of the luck and don't necessarily have to do with styles. I remember in California in 1969 I was riding good horses but went maybe 40 races without winning one. Then one afternoon I rode two winners, a heavy favorite and a long shot, and I said to myself, That's good; I'm out of the slump.' Then I won the $100,000 Strub Stakes with Nodouble and the stewards took my number down and gave me a five-day suspension. In my first race back after that I won by a nose, but in the stretch I struck another horse with my whip and again I was disqualified and given five more days. After that suspension I rode two or three days, had a spill and broke my ankle. I was out for two or three months. That's what I mean about slumps being more a part of luck than style."
A magnificently disciplined rider of rare judgment, Pincay still considers getting up at 4 a.m. to work horses as much a part of his job as being given a ride on a stakes winner at 4 p.m. "He'll come around, even on a Sunday morning, looking for work," says King Ranch Trainer Buddy Hirsch. "And when you throw him up on a horse you feel legs like a vise. They remind me of Johnny Longden's."
Although Pincay considers California home, he prefers to ride in the East. "I like New York because the racing is better. At Aqueduct in a 14-horse field you usually have 14 top riders. In California in a 12-horse field there are maybe seven or eight top riders; that's the difference. I guess it's simply that I thrive on competition. But there is something else. I don't know why, but horses have more of a chance in New York. Even if you ride a 50-to-l shot you can win."
None of Pincay's horses have yet entered a Hall of Fame, but there is time ahead. To date he considers his best mounts Advocator, Nodouble, Drin, Rising Market, Gamely, Twice Worthy, Unconscious and Bold Reason. The first Kentucky Derby Pincay ever saw was last May, and he didn't see much of it as his horse, the 5-to-2 favorite, Unconscious, broke down and finished out of the money. "I thought I'd be very nervous being there for the first time and on the favorite, too," he says, "but when it happened it was like any other $100,000 race."
Hundred-granders are going to make Pincay wealthy in the future and to take care of that his business manager has incorporated him and is investing the profits in real estate. But Pincay is not yet thinking of his old age. "I would like to be like Shoemaker," he says, "and keep riding a long, long time. Then I'll stick around the track, probably as a trainer. Not as an agent though. They have too many aggravations."
A few days later veteran Trainer Syl Veitch, who has watched the great riders for years, tossed Laffit Pincay up on a long shot belonging to George D. Widener. "I may not have the best horse," Veitch remarked to a friend in the paddock, "but I know I've got the best jockey. It's his head, you know; he's always thinking. In a race he's a lot like Arcaro once was: he's watching every other horse. Too many guys know only one way to look: straight ahead. This man can outride any jockey in the world right now."