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Original Issue

Scaling New Heights

Laffit Pincay has shed the weight of tragedy and is back on course

On Jan. 18, 1985, the telephone rang in the jockeys' room at Santa Anita Park. Harold Wolk, the track's assistant clerk of the scales, answered it and heard the voice of a young girl on the line. It was 15-year-old Lisa Pincay. She was crying. "This is Laffit Pincay's daughter," she said. "May I please speak to my father?"

Alarmed, Wolk glanced around the jocks' room and saw Pincay lounging in front of a television set. It was late in the day at Santa Anita, and the eighth race had just been run. Pincay was waiting to ride in the ninth. Slightly panicked, Wolk shouted, "Laffit! Telephone! Now!"

What Laffit Pincay Jr. will forever remember is the strangeness of his daughter's words as she spoke haltingly to him: "Dad? mom shot herself."

The man holding the phone in the jockeys' room that day, arguably the greatest rider in America for the last 16 years, has led the nation's jockeys seven times in money won. There are those who would choose Angel Cordero Jr., the brilliant, though at times rule-bending, tactician, but year after year the major records have fallen to Pincay. And while he has not enjoyed the kind of year in 1986 that he has in past seasons—in June he sprained an ankle in a spill and missed a month of racing—he insists he is riding smarter than ever. That claim was borne out in the Breeders' Cup two weeks ago when he became the only jockey to bring home two winners. He won the $3 million Classic aboard Skywalker in the best ride of the day and guided Capote to victory in the $1 million Juvenile, a victory that will make that colt the winter-book favorite for next year's Kentucky Derby.

For years Pincay has been the nation's most powerful finisher, throwing his muscular, 117-pound frame so fiercely into a horse's closing strides that he often gives the appearance of lifting his mount at the final jump and dropping the horse's nose on the wire. He has all the other tools, too: fine hands, balance, a sharp sense of pace, and fearlessness in traffic. Above all that, he has a sense of self-discipline off the racetrack that other jockeys consider almost heroic. Constantly at war with weight, he has gone on and off diets, and there was actually a time when his main staple was unsalted nuts and bran.

All of these attributes have earned Pincay five Eclipse awards, the industry's Oscar. They also earned him early election to racing's Hall of Fame. That was in 1975, only nine years after he came to the U.S. from his native Panama.

But nothing he can recall in all those years at racetracks is so seared in his memory as that moment on Jan. 18, 1985.

Hearing his daughter's words, Pincay screamed, "She can't do this! She can't do this!"

Pincay bolted to his locker. "I went into shock," he says. Pale and shaken, saying nothing, he dressed quickly. "Are you O.K.?" asked valet Dave Rushlow.

"Something terrible has happened," cried Pincay. He dashed out the door and headed for the clubhouse, leaving a pall in the room. Bill Shoemaker, Pincay's best friend among the riders, called his wife, Cindy, on the phone. Cindy Shoemaker was close to Laffit's wife, Linda, and the two couples often socialized. "You better get over to the Pincay house," Bill told her. "I don't know why, but Laffit just left here in tears."

In the clubhouse, Pincay found his closest friend, Panamanian-born trainer Humberto Aguilera, and together they raced in Pincay's Mercedes to his home in Los Feliz. By now, the sense of shock had given way to anger. Linda had promised him that she would never again try to kill herself. Pincay knew of three occasions on which she had tried to end her life. One was before they met. After they were married, she had twice taken overdoses of Valium, but after the second attempt she had told him, "I don't know how I could have done that. If I had died, I would have missed so much because I love my kids so much. I promise you I will never, never do anything like that again."

In the car that day, by the time Aguilera got around to asking what was wrong, Pincay had already dismissed what his daughter had told him on the phone. "It was like my mind wouldn't accept this," he says. "I completely put what Lisa told me out of my mind. I twisted it around." Pincay told Aguilera. "I think Linda did something to herself in the house. She took some pills."

Aguilera knew it was more than pills when they got to the house. "There were six police cars," he says. And he felt a sense of foreboding when an officer approached Pincay and said, "There has been an accident here. We've sent your wife to the hospital."

"Is she O.K.?" asked Pincay.

The officer hesitated, then said, "We've sent her to the hospital."

At Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center a doctor took Pincay and Aguilera into a small room and asked the rider, "Do you know what's happened?"

"Is she all right?" Pincay asked.

"Your wife shot herself in the head," the doctor said. "She has no chance. Neurologically, she is dead. We have her on a life-support system."

Pincay slumped forward, weeping. Moments later, a nurse with a dismal sense of timing came into the room. "Mr. Pincay," she said, "we know this is a tough question to ask, but are you willing to donate her eyes or any of her organs to the hospital?"

Pincay said, "I can't answer right now...I want another neurologist to see her." Another did. Two days later, on Jan. 20, Pincay agreed to take his wife off the life-support system. She died that day.

"I felt like a hole opened up and swallowed me," Pincay says. "I didn't care whether I rode or not." Not a few race-trackers, knowing how much he had depended on his wife, felt that her death would finish the man as a rider. "I know people were saying, 'He won't come back,' " Pincay says. "I didn't think I would come back, either." In fact, the 38-year-old Pincay told Aguilera, "I'm going to have to quit riding."

Among other things, what he had lost was a fervently loyal woman who had lent support in his long, agonizing struggles with weight. There was a time when, despondent over this never-ending battle, Pincay began mixing diet pills with vodka and behaving erratically. He was fighting with jockeys at the track and coming home at all hours of the night. His career as well as his marriage was heading for the rocks when Linda drew him up short. "You're going your own way," she told him, "and we're not going anywhere this way." So he quit the booze and the pills and straightened out. "If it weren't for her," he has said more than once, "I wouldn't be here anymore."

Theirs was, by all accounts, a love match almost since the day he first saw her at Santa Anita in December 1966. Pincay was riding a horse owned by her father, Bill Radkovich, a contractor who had built the turf course at Hollywood Park. She was wearing a pretty white dress, but what got him was a dazzlingly quick, toothy smile and flashing brown eyes. He asked her to the Jockeys' Ball in February; they were married a year later. She was not just some candy-baked dolly he had picked up at the Polo Lounge one night and married for her decorative attributes. A racetracker at heart, Linda loved and understood the game, and she traveled frequently with Pincay to major stakes across the country.

Linda dutifully updated his scrap-books, and though he often lost track of such things, she knew how many winners he had and how much money he had won. Not long before she died, she said to him, "Do you know you're close to riding your 6,000th winner?" Pincay said that that was impossible: "I'm at least 300 winners off."

"I'm telling you, Laffit, you're about 100 winners away," she said. The next day she called the Santa Anita press box, had someone look up the figures and announced grandly to him: "I was right. You're 96 winners away."

The shadow that darkened the Pincay marriage was Linda's impulse toward self-destruction. Her mother had tried to kill herself several times, and one of her sisters had ended her own life by taking an overdose of medication. Linda had always been prone to periods of inconsolable depression, but Pincay had stopped worrying about what they might lead to because of the promise that she had made to him.

In the 15 months before her death, though, she had been under enormous stress. In November 1983, doubled up with acute abdominal pain, she was rushed to a hospital. Ten days of tests revealed nothing, and she went home. A month later, after another attack, doctors discovered that she had been suffering from a ruptured appendix and that gangrene had set in.

For Pincay, the long roller-coaster ride had begun. In and out of hospitals, often in great pain, Linda was never again the same. She was still so ill in the spring of 1984 that she was unable to accompany Pincay to the Kentucky Derby. She had been at each of his 10 unsuccessful attempts to win the race he most wanted to win, and that year she missed his first victory, aboard Swale. When Pincay called her afterward from the Directors' Room at Churchill Downs, she suggested she might have been a jinx in the past and asked him, plaintively, "Does this mean I can't go again?"

"Of course not!" Pincay told her.

That night, after the flight home, he wanted to talk to her about the race—they had always talked about the big races he had won—but she had taken her pills and was asleep. She was taking more than that, Pincay knows now, mixing Valium and the painkiller Percodan with vodka. By then she was sounding like a woman who wanted to do away with herself.

Increasingly depressed and reclusive, refusing to leave the house, she would tell Pincay, "I hate the way I feel. I don't feel like going to the track. I just don't want to do anything. I'm a burden to the family. I don't know why I didn't die during the operation."

On the night before she took her life Pincay heard her slurring her words and discovered the vodka. "How can you mix these things?" he angrily demanded of her. "You know you're taking pain pills. Why do you drink?" She drifted off to bed, but he stayed up, fuming. He was still angry the next morning as he left for the races, and the last words he ever spoke to her were "I'll see you later."

That day Linda locked herself in their bedroom. Laffit Pincay III, then nine, tried to get in to ask her something, but she refused to open the door. "Go away," Linda said. Lisa became alarmed. So she shooed Laffit to his room and asked her mother to open the door. "Go away," Linda repeated. Growing more concerned, Lisa began looking for the key to the bedroom. As she searched frantically, she heard the shot. In a panic she ran at the door and slammed a shoulder into it. The door burst open. "My mom was lying on the floor with a gun in her hand," Lisa says. She called the paramedics. And then, in tears, her father.

Inevitably, for Pincay, there was a piercing sense of anger and guilt over things real and imagined. "I should have known this, I should have done that," says Pincay. "The guilt lasted for a while, until I realized I had every right to be mad at her for doing what she did. I was mad at her for a long time, but not anymore. That was her wish. I respect that. She did it. Even though at the time I don't think she knew what she was doing. I think she did it because she got into the drinking stage so bad that she couldn't be without drinking. She was mixing the alcohol and the pills. She got to where she couldn't go back and felt very bad about it. A combination of that and feeling depressed—feeling that she was never going to be the same again."

Of course, from the depths of this ordeal, Pincay did come back again. "It was something I had to prove," he says. "I thought, 'I still have a lot of people to live for.' I said to myself, 'I'm going to prove to everyone I can go on.' I started to work hard. I started getting up in the morning and working horses. I hadn't done that for a while."

He walked two miles a day after those morning workouts, and day by day he felt stronger and more confident. "I got ahold of myself," Pincay says, "and I talked to myself and I said to myself, 'I've got this one life.' I had seen so many people go down because of one thing that bothered them and I said, 'I have been tough all my life with my profession, with my self-discipline, and I'm not going to let this happen to me.' "

He did not. Shoemaker was the least surprised of all. "How many times have they said I was finished?" asked the ageless Shoe. "I've been saying for years, 'I'm going to show them they're wrong!' I never had any doubt in my mind that Laffit would keep riding. There has never been any rider who is more dedicated to his profession—not me, or Arcaro, or anyone. I don't care who he is."

And, to be sure, what a year the man had, filled as it was with old glories and new emotions and records that fell like flowers at his feet. Pincay came back to the track two weeks after his wife's death, going winless in five races. But the next day he won the $138,300 Santa Maria Handicap on Adored, one of Linda's favorite horses. In a memorable scene, Pincay and Adored's trainer, his old friend Laz Barrera, embraced in the winner's circle, both men in tears. "Don't you worry," Barrera whispered to him. "She's in heaven looking down at you here."

So Pincay was back, and soon riding with his old intensity when money was on the line. There was that magnificent ride aboard Spend a Buck—a classic Pincay performance—when he literally held together the tired, leg-weary colt in the Jersey Derby to win by a neck, thus pulling down the largest single purse in racing history, $2.6 million. He became the leading money-winning jockey of all time when, on Aug. 25, his career earnings soared to $102,048,656, putting him ahead of the venerable Shoemaker. His year culminated in a victory aboard Tasso in the 1985 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Aqueduct; by December he had won $13.4 million in purses, the most ever by a rider in a year. For all he had done, and no doubt as a kind of sympathy vote for what he had overcome to do it, he won his fifth Eclipse award.

Despite all the laurels of the year, there was the agony and despair in which it began and the sense of emptiness he felt at the end of it, particularly with the coming of Christmas and the unknown dread that haunted him and kept him awake at night. It began after Thanksgiving. "I'd wake up at three in the morning and I couldn't sleep anymore," he says. "I'd get up and watch TV or read. Any book. I kept saying, 'What's happening?' I don't drink any coffee, except on weekends. I didn't know what it was. It bothered me that I couldn't sleep. You feel down, drowsy, your energy drops. 'What's going on?' I kept saying. 'Why do I feel this way?' It must have been the fear of Christmas—deep inside I was really worried how we were going to be for Christmas—fear of how my kids were going to be. Lisa was fine but I was afraid for the little one."

Laffit III, then 10, awoke thinking only of what Saint Nick had left him under the tree. "Then I thought of my mom," the boy says. "It was the first Christmas without her." He broke into tears only once during the holidays. His father took him aside and told him that what had happened touched everyone and they all had to keep going and try to remember only the good things. "We have to get used to the fact that she's not going to be around anymore," father told son.

Looking back on it just a few weeks ago, young Laffit folded his hands on his lap in the den of the family home, thought carefully a moment and said, firmly, "It didn't really hurt me at first, but then it hurt me more and more. It still hurts, but I think it always will."

Earlier that day Lisa and her brother had dashed into the house from school asking their father for their medical records. "I wonder where they are," Pincay mused out loud.

"Dad, I have to get another booster for school," said Laffit. "Mom took me for the last one."

Pincay did not answer. By then, he was searching the house for the childrens' vaccination records. Lisa and her father had already had long talks about why Linda had done what she had done, and she appears to have come to terms with it. With her father out of the room, she recalled the memory of that final scene, of breaking down that door and finding what she had found. It is still vivid in her mind, as doubtless it will always be.

Asked about her reaction that day, she remembered thinking that she would keep her mother's suicide to herself. "My first reaction was that I wasn't going to tell anyone," she said. Of course, the tragedy was played prominently in all the Los Angeles papers, so there was no secret to keep from all her friends.

"I didn't think of him as being famous," Lisa said. "He was just my dad. That was the first time I realized how famous he was."

Pincay returned to the den, papers in hand. Now his son was standing in front of him, hitching up a pair of slacks and telling his father that they didn't fit. "Are you sure your pants are too big?" the father asked. Young Laffit showed him the long cuffs and with his fingers demonstrated the more than ample waist size.

"O.K., we'll get the pants fixed," the father said.

At one hectic moment, a visitor noticed that in the den's six-decker trophy case—one filled with cups, urns, plates and bowls—there were only four Eclipse awards, statues of the great pioneer thoroughbred. "Lisa, where is my other Eclipse award?" Pincay yelled to her in another room.

"I don't know, Dad," she hollered back. After searching for several minutes, Pincay found it tucked behind the bar.

Of course, Linda would have handled these things—the medical records, sizing up the pants, the placement of a trophy—but Pincay has become a surrogate mother as well as a real father. "Sometimes I try to be tough on them, but I start laughing," he says. "They tend to do what they want. Sometimes it's tough. If you let them, they take advantage of you. I try to raise them in a way not to be too soft and not to be too hard. Phyllis helps me a lot with them." That's actress Phyllis Davis, Pincay's girlfriend, who played Robert Urich's secretary in the television series Vega$.

"The best thing about them is they listen," Pincay says. "I give them whatever they want, but the greatest satisfaction to me is when I say 'No!' and they accept it. I tell Lisa, on Saturday night, 'I want you to be home at 11:30.' She's usually right there."

The man says he is content with his life right now, at peace with what happened in early 1985, and that he still thinks about his wife almost every day. "I think about her when I'm driving and hear a song that reminds me of her and I get flashes, but then they go away.... There's always a spot that's going to be for her. I loved her. I still do."



In the jockeys' room at Santa Anita, Pincay faces the moment when he must weigh in.



Pincay put Capote out front in the Juvenile, the first of his two Breeders' Cup wins.


Linda was the picture of health in 1982 as she posed with the family in Del Mar, Calif.



Returning after Linda's death, Pincay was hugged by Barrera.