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Pincay's last chance for another Derby?


He has the self-discipline of a medieval hermit and the track record of a conqueror. In a sport that began more than 350 years ago, no one has enjoyed a longer or more glorious ride than Laffit Pincay Jr.

He's been to the winner's circle more than 9,100 times, and that's one record that will never be broken. In 37 years in the saddle, Pincay has earned five Eclipse Awards and led the nation in earnings seven times. He's been a Hall of Famer since 1975. He's won three Belmont Stakes, seven Breeders' Cup events and dozens of meet titles in Southern California, including the recent winter/spring session at Santa Anita.

I won it once, and the feeling was unbelievable. I'd do anything to win another Derby.
Laffit Pincay Jr
At 54, he's still at the top of his game, and on May 5 he'll be trying to win one of the few races that has brought him a nearly unbroken run of frustration. Pincay has competed in 19 Kentucky Derbys, running out of the money a dozen times, with two thirds and four seconds. Not surprisingly, the one time he won the classic on the first Saturday in May is his sweetest victory of all.

"That's the race everyone dreams about," said Pincay, who took the 1984 Derby on Swale for trainer Woody Stephens. He's gone 0-for-8 since then in the Derby, which he's skipped since 1994. He'll finally be back this year on Millennium Wind, whom he rode to a 5 1/4-length, front-running win April 14 in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

When asked what a second Derby victory would mean to him, Pincay didn't play it cool.

"It would feel great," he said Tuesday on a conference call with racing writers. "Winning the Derby, that's the best race in the world. I won it once, and the feeling was unbelievable. I'd do anything to win another Derby. And if I don't, at least I won it once."

His willingness to sacrifice has been the key. It's how he's managed to excel at the sport's highest level at a time of life when most athletes have long since retired, years when they relive their glory days as their bellies expand. Because of his spartan lifestyle, Pincay's highlight film remains a work in progress.

Although he's only 5-feet-1, the muscular Pincay has the upper body of a middleweight fighter, and he's had to fight weight since he was a teenager.

"I wasn't born to be small," he said. "I'm built to be 135 to 150 pounds."

Thanks to his rare ability to just say no to food, he rides at a trim 117. He admitted that early in his career he ate more and compensated by "flipping," the jockey's term for self-induced vomiting. That perverse practice left him feeling weak, so he cut it out.

For much of his career, Pincay subsisted on a daily intake of 650 calories, about half of what the average person consumes. Three years ago, feeling old and weary and in the midst of an extended slump, he changed his eating habits and revived his career.

"I wasn't riding well [in Southern California] and I wasn't getting on good horses, so I was thinking about going up north to San Francisco to break [Bill] Shoemaker's record.

"I started eating fruit, which I hadn't done since I was a kid, and I started feeling better and stronger and started riding better."

Shoemaker's mark of 8,833 winners fell within two years, on Dec. 10, 1999, and Pincay hasn't slowed up yet.

His current regimen might tax the inner strength of a Zen master. He rises at 5 a.m., has some high-fiber fruit (oranges, apples, blueberries) and exercises at his home gym. He stretches, jogs and works on a StairMaster, then it's off to the track. He'll take a nap there and have a light lunch (cereal), and in the middle of the card he'll eat a protein bar at about 3 o'clock. Dinner is chicken or fish, with salad, vegetables and maybe a piece of bread.

"I always count the calories," said Pincay, who allows himself 850 a day. "I haven't had a piece of pie since I was 15 years old. I just never let myself go. I'd have to quit if I did that."

That day is not that far down the road, and this could be Pincay's last chance to win another Derby.

"Ever since I won the Derby, I didn't want to go back with a horse who had no chance," he said. "There were times I could have gone, but I stayed in California because I didn't think I'd have a good chance to win. During Derby week, everybody goes out of town, and I got a lot of chances to ride good horses that could win, so that's what I did."

Like almost everyone else, Pincay underestimated Charismatic two years ago. The day before the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, and only 15 days before the Derby, trainer D. Wayne Lukas asked Pincay to ride the eventual Derby and Preakness winner. Pincay chose to stay out West, and the late Chris Antley picked up the mount and won two classics.

This time, Pincay ended up on Millennium Wind because Chris McCarron, the colt's regular rider, chose to stay on turf star Bienamado, who won the Grade I San Luis Rey Stakes in California the day of the Blue Grass. By an odd coincidence, Charismatic and Millennium Wind are out of the same mare, the deceased Bali Babe. No dam ever has produced two Derby winners; then again, there's never been a jockey like Pincay.

Pincay likes his chances on the lightly raced, long-striding Millennium Wind, who probably will be the fourth betting choice, behind Point Given, Congaree and Monarchos.

"This is a good horse, he's improving all the time," Pincay said. "If he keeps getting better, he could become any kind of horse. He's got stamina and he's got unbelievable speed.

"If they let me make the lead, I'm going to go to the lead. If not, I know the horse can lay second, third or fourth and come running at the end."

Pincay has done that the past few years in the second prime of a matchless career. He can only hope that his Derby colt has as much energy late in the race as he does.