The nervous teenager sat atop his mount as dusk fell upon Hippodromo de Presidente Remon in Panama. The date was May 19, 1964. War was raging in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, the Beatles ruled
the music world, and 17-year-old Laffit Pincay Jr. was a nobody from Panama City.
It was long ago and far away, but Pincay will never forget what he did on Huelen, the second mount of his career.
"It was the last race of the day," Pincay said last week on a conference call. "It was getting very dark, and my horse was a big longshot. When we won, I was so excited that I didn't sleep that night."
Thirty-five years and more than 8,800 winners later, Pincay has broken a record that many people, including him, never thought would be broken. Pincay visited the winner's circle for the 8,834th time Friday, riding Irish Nip to victory at Hollywood Park to surpass Bill Shoemaker's all-time mark.
"The record means a lot because Shoemaker is the greatest jockey I ever rode against," Pincay said. "It's a record I never thought anybody could come close to.
"When I won 8,000 races, I thought I would have a chance, but I knew it would be iffy. When I got to 8,500, I knew I'd have a good shot and that I was going to go for it."
That's what he's always done, regardless of the price. Although only 5-foot-1, the muscular Pincay has the upper body of a middleweight boxer, and his relentless quest for excellence has been dogged by a battle
to make weight. To appreciate his incredible self-discipline, listen to
"Pincay and the Peanut," as told by trainer D. Wayne Lukas in a 1989 video
entitled, "A Cup of Courage: The Jockey's Story."
Lukas and Pincay were flying from California to a stakes race in New York in the mid-'80s, and the stewardesses were giving them hors d'oeuvres, cheeses, salads, filet mignon and desserts. Lukas indulged; Pincay ate nothing.
"About four hours into the flight, Laffit asks the stewardess for half a cup of bouillon," Lukas said. "He sips a little of it and swallows. I think, 'What discipline,' because I know he has to be hungry.
"Finally, there's a bag of peanuts on my tray, and Laffit reaches over, takes one peanut, and lays it on his tray. Believe it or not, he splits it, takes the half, puts it in his mouth and chews it for two or three minutes. Then he washes it down with some bouillon and leaves the other half of the peanut on his tray."
How many saints had as much willpower?
Pincay's dedication, strength, sense of pace and timing have forged a career filled with honors. He's the only human being ever to win five Eclipse Awards, and he entered the Hall of Fame in 1975 at the age of only 28. He led the nation in earnings seven times, won three consecutive Belmont Stakes, seven Breeders' Cup races and a Kentucky Derby. He rode some
of the greatest thoroughbreds of the past half-century, including Affirmed, John Henry and Cougar II, and was as highly regarded as a person as anyone in the sport.
A few years ago, though, the glory days seemed lost and gone forever. When Pincay turned 50, he was getting on very few live horses. Ten years after his 1987 feat of winning seven races in one day at Santa Anita, he was lucky to get that many home first in a month. To have a chance at Shoemaker's record, Pincay considered dropping in class and riding on the
weaker Northern California circuit, where he would have less competition for good mounts.
"I was doing pretty bad at the time," he said. "I didn't want to move and leave my wife (Jeanine) here. I started a new diet, I started feeling better and started riding better, too. I started experimenting with things I never ate before. I started eliminating things like bran, which are empty calories. Now I eat fruit, grains, chicken, fish and a lot of vitamins.
Maybe eating fruit, which I hadn't done since I was a little kid, made the difference.
"One day Shoemaker told me, 'I don't know what you're doing, but you're riding a lot better,'" Pincay said. "That felt good."
Other people noticed, too. Trainers who had been avoiding Pincay began to use him again, and the wins became more frequent. His old friend's record no longer seemed out of reach.
Shoemaker was a phenomenal talent whose touch with a racehorse was uncanny.
"He was a natural," Pincay said of the tiny man who stood 4-11 and weighed only 100 pounds in his prime. "There were horses I couldn't win with, and then he would get on them and win. I couldn't figure it out. He didn't have my strength, but somehow he could make them run for him and win.
"He had such patience and was a very clean rider. I admired so much the way he conducted himself on the racetrack. He would rather get beat than bother you and put you in a tight spot.
"I admire him as a person as well as a rider. He was always well liked. Everybody loved Shoe."
Much has been taken away from Shoemaker, 68, since he retired in 1990 after 41 years in the saddle. An auto accident on April 8, 1991, left him a quadriplegic. His third marriage later ended in divorce, and a moderately successful training career was cut short. Now his greatest achievement has been erased. Yet through it all, the Shoe rooted for Pincay.
"I'm happy he feels that way," Pincay said. "He understands records are meant to be broken. Somebody is going to come along and break mine.
"Shoe was in the jockeys' room the other day at Hollywood Park and he said to me, 'When you're going to break it, do it right away, because I don't want to be going to the track every day."