This doesn't seem to be a sport you'd play any longer than you
absolutely had to. And play can't be the right word, anyway.
Whenever an ambulance follows you in the routine performance of
your duties, rolling along morbidly as you go about your
business, you're probably more involved in reality programming
than athletics. However, sitting on top of 1,100 pounds of
unpredictability, you and your two-pound saddle whipping along at
40 mph, that isn't even the worst of it. How about having to
weigh in at 116 pounds every day, when your body type calls for
150 pounds? Could you do that? Would you do that? Would you do it
for 35 years?
Because he's done just that, and for just that long, Laffit
Pincay Jr. is either somebody who gets off on self-denial or the
greatest athlete of our time. Michael Jordan coming back at 38?
Nolan Ryan pitching a no-hitter at 44? Please. Pincay never left,
and here he is, at 54, riding as well as he did at 28, when,
already a legend, he was installed in horse racing's Hall of
Fame. He has not simply survived, past when he was chasing money
or fame, but also has resumed his position as the world's most
successful jockey, always the man to beat down the stretch, a
gaunt picture of nobility, his huge, bony hands sawing back and
forth atop yet another nag.
Right now, still battling it out on the speed-crazy California
circuit, Pincay is challenging fellow Panamanian Alex Solis, 37,
in the standings at Del Mar. That is hardly a fluke, as earlier
this season Pincay won the riding titles at Santa Anita and
Hollywood Park. It is hard to overstate how remarkable his
performance has been. This is a sport's most finely tuned athlete
carrying on two decades past his obvious prime.
And for what? When he broke Bill Shoemaker's record of 8,833
career wins nearly two years ago (Shoemaker rode until he was
58), Pincay was 52, with nothing more to prove. He had recovered
from his 12th broken collarbone, had no debts, had remarried and
fathered a son (his son and daughter from his first marriage are
grown) and might have wondered what it would be like to swallow a
piece of meat, instead of chewing it and spitting it out. Instead
he kept taking all the mounts he could get and, more to the
point, kept winning.
So the question becomes not so much how--although at his age not
even that is easily answered--as why. Other jockeys, the only ones
who can appreciate what he goes through, shake their heads.
"Doing this at 54?" asks Gary Stevens, who at 38 has already
retired and come back. "I doubt I'll be doing this at 45." The
persistence is pointless unless, of course, there is something
besides history and wealth to gather. "Well," says Pincay, who
presents himself as a sly operative, playful but secretly
obsessed (no wonder they called him Pinky the Pirate when he came
to the U.S., in 1966), "I do love to ride the horses. And when
you win...." The charge down the final furlong, where Pincay
outmuscles his competition (no jockey wants to look over and see
Pincay alongside him in the stretch), is the kind of restorative
that Ponce de Leon never found. "That adrenaline," says Pincay,
"can push you through any self-doubts."
To be a winning jockey, at any age, requires decent mounts. That
Pincay still gets them is testimony to his dedication. Trainers
have always respected his skills, but they need to know that he
remains as committed at 54 as he was at 19. He is. That's what
few people get about him, how single-minded he is. "Nobody's as
dedicated as Laffit," says Eddie Delahoussaye, almost as
grizzled, at 49, as his colleague. "Not me, not anybody. He eats
and sleeps a race. When the day is over, I blow it off. He's
looking to the next day. That's pretty tough."
Pincay does everything tough. He admits that even though he
sprang from an accomplished horseman (his father was a famous
rider in South America), he was never meant to be a jockey.
Although he's only 5'1" ("I eat soup on his head," says one
rider), he's built much broader, and with thicker legs, than the
average rider. "They told me from the beginning I would be too
big," he says. "But I'm a hardheaded guy."
He accepted the sacrifices his decision would require and plunged
ahead in a career that took him out of Panama to Chicago, where
Shoemaker remembers him as an apprentice ("In '66 when I first
saw him," Shoemaker says, "I said he could be the next great
rider"), then in '68 on to Southern California, where he has
raced almost exclusively ever since. The rewards were great.
Getting mounts on horses like Affirmed, Conquistador Cielo and
John Henry, Pincay earned a reputation as an all-around
rider--good hands and a good head. Few have been bolder, racing
hard and tight, willing, as Pincay puts it, to "get my ass kicked
a couple of times" in the jockey's room after races. "I would do
anything to win," he says, "because I felt so much pressure. The
wins I forget about right away. The losses, never."
Then there was that unmatched ability to urge a horse down the
stretch, whether it meant using his welterweight muscles (packed
onto a bantamweight's body) or only his willpower. "In the last
sixteenth of a mile," trainer Bill Spawr once said, "if you've
got a horse going head-to-head, I'll take Laffit over anybody."
All this has earned him a record six Eclipse Awards to go with
nearly a quarter-billion dollars in purses. He's had wins big
(the Kentucky Derby aboard Swale in 1984) and small, but mostly
just wins--more than 9,200 of them.
It's been a magnificent, one-of-a-kind career. But to keep his
bargain with the sport he loves, Pincay has been on a lifelong
starvation diet, finely calibrated to provide only enough energy
to get him through his workout and the day of racing. The result
is a walking anatomical chart, every blood vessel, muscle fiber,
every strand of ligature in sharp relief. He's created a
life-support system for a set of highly specific skills. That
requires him to live--live?--on 850 calories a day: some cereal,
some chicken and some fruit which he chops so finely that on the
plate the particles of apple appear satisfying by their numbers
if not their mass.
Pincay believes the addition of fruit to his diet several years
ago--"I was watching TV," he recalls, "and saw this old lady, 70
years old, with this big basket of fruit, and she was very
skinny, but very lively"--is what has saved his career. Until the
revelation provided by that infomercial, Pincay swerved from one
outlandish program to another, often doing himself more harm than
good (collapsing somewhat famously at Aqueduct, his body severely
depleted of salt). Sometimes he would fast, sometimes eat only a
vegetable, sometimes only a salad, all of it topped with diet
pills and so many visits to a sweatbox that he bought one of his
own. He had it installed in front of the TV, where, his
disembodied head jutting out of it spookily, he barked answers
back at the quiz-show hosts.
"But my dumbest diet, even though I did best on it, was my
all-nuts diet," he says. For two years all he ate was nuts with
dry cereal. As it happened, he had his greatest seasons on nuts
(Laffit Pecan?), winning celebrated races on Affirmed in 1979
during one of those years. What's more, the diet provided one of
the alltime plane-food anecdotes. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas was
flying with Pincay and noticed him take a peanut from the airline
snack, cut it in half, eat the first portion and save the second
for later in the flight. "That might have happened," Pincay says,
laughing. "People were always surprised by my eating, like when
I'd scrape the salt off a cracker."
More recently, before heading to a San Diego Padres game to throw
out the first pitch, he tucked a piece of rye bread in a plastic
bag. When everyone else in the luxury box he watched the game
from chowed down on pasta, Pincay had his bread and a chicken
breast. He abandoned dried legumes when he noticed that he could
not stay awake during the day. "Socially I wasn't much fun," he
says. "I had no life."
So it was on to the next crazy regimen, then the one after that.
A young man might survive these repeated attacks on his
metabolism, but an older gent begins to suffer for them. As
Pincay edged toward 50, the toll became more vicious. He had no
energy. "There's a difference between tired and weak," he says.
"It got so I would pin all my hopes on my first ride. Because if
I won that, I'd have enough adrenaline to make it through the
program. If I didn't, it would be a long day."
Although Pincay says his riding must have declined, other jockeys
didn't notice. "He was the same rider he'd always been," says
Delahoussaye. One thing, however, did not escape notice: In
December 1996 he turned 50. "They had a 50th birthday celebration
for him," remembers Stevens. "Just what a guy needs." Stevens
believes that sent a small shock through the barns and led to a
drop in Pincay's bookings.
The next year was the worst of his career--718 mounts (compared
with 1,270 in '95) and a miserable 75 wins (his career winning
percentage is 19). Pincay had bounced back from tragedy, notably
his wife's suicide in 1985, but he recognized that this might not
be survivable. "I was discouraged," he says, admitting he thought
about heading to less competitive circuits to the north. "I was
getting one or two horses a day, and none of them had a chance."
There are jockeys who idolize Pincay. Asked about Pincay, Kent
Desormeaux wrote A MAN'S MAN, A LEGEND IN OUR OWN TIME, AN IRON
MAN, A MAN OF INTEGRITY on a piece of yellow paper and turned it
in as his interview. They admire him not necessarily for the way
he wins but for the way he loses. "All that time," jockey Mike
Smith says of Pincay's struggles in the late '90s, "he never made
one peep. All you hear from most jockeys, all day long, is, 'Why
am I on this stupid horse.' Laffit just rides."
Pincay did have one thing going for him besides a new diet. As he
ground toward Shoemaker's career victory record, trainers decided
it might not hurt to be included in the pursuit. He began to get
better horses and won more races, and his age became increasingly
irrelevant. After he got the record in December 1999--"I didn't
like to see it broken," Shoemaker says, "but it couldn't have
been broken by a better guy"--nearly everyone expected Pincay to
slip into the twilight. He didn't. After winning 170 races in
1999, he won 202 last year. With 10 days to go at Del Mar, Pincay
had 162 victories this year, and fellow jockeys are predicting an
eventual 10,000 for him, easy.
There is no logical explanation for any of it, even given
Pincay's love of riding. The sport is too dangerous, too
demanding. This is not a game in which you string out a career,
coming up to pinch-hit every now and then so fans can accord you
a standing O. This is serious business, and to do it successfully
at 54 suggests an almost pathological insatiability, the kind of
hunger calories can't begin to satisfy. Poor Pincay, ever
famished, coming down the stretch, all 116 pounds of him, 100%
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEY TERRILL Heaven can weight Pincay, an obsessive dieter, is said to have split a peanut in half for two in-flight meals.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Rough rider Pincay (pink silks) says he'll do anything to win, even if it means getting punched by another jockey afterward.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Walking the walk Pincay, who in 1999 broke Shoemaker's record for wins, could reach 10,000 before he retires.
In a battle down the stretch, said Spawr, "I'll take Laffit over