Every great jockey has a special gift by which he is known, a particular skill that defines his name in terms of his art. Bill Shoemaker and Darrel McHargue have the hands, seemingly guiding their mounts with threads of silk. Then there are the disciples of the Ted Atkinson school of whip-riding. Once, after lashing a horse ferociously at the finish, Atkinson explained, "I was merely trying to impress upon him the urgency of the situation."
There may be no rider in America today who hits a horse as hard as Chris McCarron. And here and there are the heirs of Eddie Arcaro, the master of pace—jockeys with stopwatches in their heads. There also are superior grass riders like Jean Cruguet and front-runners like Angel Cordero and those who excel at coming off the pace, like Jeffrey Fell.
And then there is Laffit Pincay Jr., standing quite alone among his peers. He has fine hands and exceptional judgment of pace, but to see Pincay in a stretch drive—head down, body pitched forward, snapping out his arms and throwing all his extraordinary strength into a horse's stride—is to begin to understand the essence of his gifts, the underlying reason for his unparalleled success. For no one finishes a race like Laffit Pincay Jr., no one is tougher 20 yards from the wire.
"I've seen times where other guys were riding better for a month or two," says Bobby Frankel, a leading California trainer, "but day after day, year after year, Laffit is the best rider I've ever seen."
October 29, 1979
In this his 14th season in America, Pincay, 32, is having the finest year of his career and he could become the first rider to earn $7 million in a year. In 1973 Pincay became the first rider in history to win $4 million in purses in a single season—$4,093,492, to be exact—a record that many thought would stand for years. But with ever more racing dates and spiraling purses fueled by inflation, the money-winning record has since been broken four times, by Pincay himself in 1974 ($4,251,060), by Cordero in 1976 ($4,709,500), by Steve Cauthen in 1977 ($6,151,750) and by McHargue last year, when his mounts earned $6,188,353. Pincay broke McHargue's record Oct. 6 when Affirmed won the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, a victory worth $225,000, with the customary 10% going to Pincay. That pushed his purse earnings for the year to $6,384,568 with a little less than three months left in the racing season. What makes the $7-million mark a possibility is that he has become the regular rider for Harbor View Farm and its trainer, Laz Barrera. Barrera has the horses. Among others, he saddles Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown champion, who has already won $1,148,800 in 1979, all but $29,000 with Pincay up.
For Pincay, this year has been a reaffirmation, a return to the preeminence he enjoyed five years in a row, from 1970 to '74, when he was the leading money-winning rider in America and a three-time winner of the Eclipse Award as the nation's leading jockey. (He was elected to racing's Hall of Fame in 1975.) But the glory years had also been a time of torment. Engaged in a constant struggle to keep his weight down, he would collapse from exhaustion, hallucinate on planes, become dizzy, sick, moody, depressed. What has made this year so memorable for him is that, for the first full season he can recall, he has suffered none of this. Loose on the lead, Pincay is widening on his past, enjoying himself as he did when as a child he was climbing lofty mango trees in his native Panama City.
Admittedly, Pincay was a ruffian. He traveled with gangs, a Roberto Duran without the snarl, picking fights wherever he roamed. "A troublemaker," he says of himself. He was the son of a famous Panamanian jockey, Laffit Pincay Sr., who left home when Laffit was a small child. Soon afterward his mother, Rosario, who worked as a distributor for the Panama Gazette, married a carpenter. Laffit ran loose, on the beach and in the streets, but Rosario, a fretting mother, pleaded that he be careful.
"You look just like your father, Laffit," friends would say. "You going to be a jockey?"
"Don't say that to Laffit!" Rosario would say. Pincay wanted to be a baseball player—and he did become the second baseman on the Panama national baseball team—but the racetrack exerted a powerful attraction. "Are you related to the Laffit Pincay?" people would ask. The elder Pincay, who had gone off to Venezuela to ride, retired as a jockey in 1970 and still lives in Caracas.
Laffit apprenticed at the racetrack in Panama City without pay for 14 months, hot-walking and grooming, slicing grass with a machete and lugging it to the stables in a burlap bag. Covered with mud, bag slung over his back, one day he met his mother, who had come by to see what he was doing.
"íO Laffit! "she cried in horror. "¬¨¬®‚àö‚àèEsta es la manera que te gusta andar?" (Is this how you like to go around?)
"¬¨¬®‚àö‚àèAqui esta donde tu quieres estar?" she asked. (Is this where you want to be?)
In 1964, his first year as a rider, he was the leading apprentice in Panama, and when Jorge Velasquez signed a contract with owner Fred Hooper to ride in the U.S.—as Braulio Baeza had done a few years before—Pincay became Panama's leading rider. In 1966, he also came north with Hooper and was under contract to him for three years. Pincay was a superlative rider from the start here but did not become the nation's top jockey until 1970, when he hired Vince DeGregory as his agent. Then began his five-year reign as leading money-winner. They were a show, Pincay and DeGregory, wherever they went.
There was the glib, peripatetic DeGregory of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.—movie-star suave and tall, engaging, very savvy, a master at reading condition books and charts and at finding the horses for Pincay to ride. And there was Pin-cay, handsome and intense, with high Indian cheekbones and black hair. When he was on the Tonight Show he sat with his legs crossed and his arms folded, looking like a choirboy. And so polite. You could just hear the folks out there in Middle America saying, "My! What a nice young man."
And he was. But inside he was on edge, and had been since 1969, when he began his fight with his weight. For years he took a diet pill every day to reduce his appetite, but the pill made him nervous and he couldn't get enough sleep. He took a water pill almost every day to keep liquids from accumulating in his system, but those pills caused debilitating cramps. "At the beginning you don't feel them," Pincay says. "You just think it's great that you lost some weight. Then later on you start feeling cramps in your legs, then your back, and dizziness. Little by little it starts getting into your system and you start feeling the weakness and the cramps." He would go off the water pills, then back on them, then off and back on them again.
"I was tired all the time," he says. While taking the pills he would hit the hotbox every morning, 40 minutes to an hour a day, to sweat off four to five pounds in order to ride at 115 or 117. At Saratoga, desperate to lose weight, he bought himself a hotbox all his own—a baby-blue job he set up in his living room. "It was the kind where your head sticks out," says his wife, Linda. "He'd get inside, I'd close the lid, and he'd sit there all morning in the thing and we'd talk and watch the game shows—Hollywood Squares, Jeopardy, High Rollers—and try to answer the questions; anything to take his mind off what he was doing. The poor guy, he would sit for hours and sweat so little—I could see him get upset and anxious when he didn't sweat—and then he would walk to the track, trying to sweat some more in the heat, then get into the sweatbox there."
He changed diets like jockeys' silks, slipping out of one and into another. And he loved food. On Dec. 1, 1972, when he was far ahead in the national jockey standings and on his way to his third money-winning title, Pincay decided to take a vacation. He packed his things in New York, climbed into his white Continental Mark III and started the 3,000-mile drive to his home in suburban Los Angeles. It had been a long if lucrative year, and Pincay was tired, especially of the diet he'd been on to keep his weight at 115 pounds. That was about what he weighed when he left New York. Now it was time to relax, and eat.
And he ate on that long drive home, not an unusual amount by ordinary standards, but a prodigious quantity for him—three meals a day. For breakfast a couple of eggs, coffee with a dash of cream, and toast. For lunch a piece of meat and a vegetable. For dinner, a big steak, vegetables, a piece of bread or two and a glass of wine or two. Fond of caramel lollipops, he had one at each stop on the way. The trip took five days. When he got home, Linda took one look at him and called DeGregory: "You've got to see Laffit!"
He weighed 132 pounds.
Thus the effect of food. After the battle had commenced in 1969, Pincay frequently went without breakfast. For lunch he often had no more than a bowl of soup. "He'd plop down with me in the kitchen and have a cup of tea with nothing in it, and maybe a cracker, scraping off the grains of salt before he ate it," says Dr. Jock Jocoy, a California veterinarian. For dinner he had a piece of broiled fish and a boiled vegetable. In his sunflower-seed period he had them for breakfast with nothing else, for lunch with a poached egg, and for dinner with a salad.
During his ritual of the pillbox, the hotbox and the salad bar, Pincay never had a bad year at the track, but he sensed a void in his life. "Even when I was doing good, I had a very empty feeling, you know?" he says. "I used to get up in the morning and think, 'Oh, man, you got to do it again. And there's nothing you can do about it.' I used to think, 'Do I have to do this the rest of my career?' It was a terrible feeling, day after day. I was making so much money. I have a beautiful family and I was not enjoying it. I don't know why I was so intense about winning. I was trying so hard, sometimes I was too active on a horse and he would lose his balance and foul other horses and I was getting suspensions. Pushing too hard, trying too hard was what I was doing. I would lose my temper very easily. Get in fights all the time with other jockeys. In 1973 I started to get very depressed. I wasn't satisfied with anything. I'd win four races in a day and think about the one that got away. I'd get mad: 'You should have won five today.' It was always the win that got away. I don't know why. It wasn't money. It was the pressure. Just too much pressure."
Not all of it was self-imposed. De-Gregory wanted riding championships. "He would tell me we're going to be leading rider," Pincay says. "We're going to do this, do that. If we had a bad week, I could feel he was mad at me. He'd tell me how much money he bet on me to be the leading rider, side bets, up to $5,000 a bet. If I got days, if I got a suspension, he'd say, 'Don't worry. We'll still win. I bet another thousand on you.' If that's not putting pressure on somebody...."
DeGregory says that the first year Pincay won the riding championship, Laffit told him that nobody could beat Shoemaker in California. "I'd just started working for him," the agent recalls. "I told him, 'If you don't believe you can beat Shoemaker, I'm going to quit you. I don't work for riders who don't believe in themselves.' I always put pressure on him, ever since I went to work for him, but only because he was in a shell, very quiet. It was for his own good."
Whatever was driving Pincay, it almost consumed him in 1974, the year he had the box put in his living room at Saratoga. That fall, while riding at Aqueduct, he collapsed in the jockeys' room. "I came into the room and all the lights started looking funny to me, going around, and I saw spots," he says. "Suddenly I was very weary." A warm flash raced through his body. Rushed to the hospital, he had an electrocardiogram taken, which showed nothing wrong. He was sitting in the emergency room waiting for his wife when he noticed a doctor looking at him from across the room. "I thought he recognized me," Pincay says. He kept looking at me; finally he came up to me."
"Son, do you feel all right?" the doctor said.
"I feel funny."
"You don't look good to me," the doctor said.
Pincay told him about the diet and the pills and the box. The doctor took him inside for blood tests. An hour later came the warning. "He told me, 'Listen, you have no salt in your body. You have no potassium in your body. You have no water in your body. You are dehydrated. If you don't quit what you're doing, you're going to have a heart attack when you're very young.' I got scared. I knew I had to do something about staying away from the box."
But he was going for his fifth straight riding championship, and he pressed on. On a flight from Kentucky to New York, he felt dizzy as the plane took off. "I got very nervous," he recalls. "I thought I was going to go crazy. I thought of screaming and running. I think it was the drugs." Shortly after he got to New York, shaken, he decided to hang it up for the year, and flew to Aruba with his wife, his close friend Jockey Alvaro Pineda and Pineda's wife. Pincay won the riding championship after cutting short his vacation, but that was to be his last title.
Pineda was killed in a starting-gate accident at Santa Anita in January 1975, and Pincay grieved for months. He had been on an all-protein diet since November, and as usual he did not feel well. He was anemic; physicians believed they may have found a parasite in his spleen. "He was not the same rider in '75," Linda says. "I don't think it was only Alvaro's death. I think it was also the diet he was on. All-protein, and water pills and diet pills. The doctor who put him on it told him, 'This is against everything I've ever been taught, because you have no fat, but I'm going to do it because I'm afraid if I don't, you'll try something else, and I want you under my care.' He was trying to help him, but it wasn't right for Laffit. He would get sullen and depressed. There was no communication. I felt like I barely knew him. It kept him out of the box, but it got him very, very weak. He was quiet and moody. There was no closeness, like he was living all by himself. He was like a robot."
Pincay broke his collarbone twice in 1975, in March and July, and what with the fractures, the diet and Pineda's death, the thought of quitting came to him. He tried to resist the box; its sweet medicinal smell was now enough to make him ill. He began thinking, "What am I doing here? Alvaro had been working very, very hard. He gets killed trying so hard. It was like I was putting myself in his position. Why do I have to suffer like this—to get killed like he did? I questioned whether what I was doing was right. I didn't know if it was worth it. What's important? What means something to me?"
The following spring he asked his business representative to fire DeGregory, who was in Las Vegas when he got the call.
"What?" DeGregory said.
"That's what Laffit told me to tell you," said the agent.
"You must be kidding. I talked to him last night."
"He told me to tell you you're fired."
Knowing how persuasive DeGregory could be, Pincay felt that "If I didn't do it that way, I'd have never gotten rid of him. I know him. He would have told me I was wrong, he was right, and I'm very soft. He's a good agent. I know he's competitive. I just didn't need somebody like that."
So DeGregory was gone. "I'm still just dumbfounded about the whole thing," he says. Pincay hired agent George O'Bryan. "The first thing I said to him was, 'I don't want any pressure from you or anybody,' " Pincay says. " 'I don't want any worry about leading rider or anything. I don't want anybody pushing me around. I just want to be happy and try to do some good.' "
This year is the culmination of their work together. And Pincay has never been more at peace with himself. He has finally found a diet he can live with, at least for now. Every morning he counts out a handful of unsalted nuts—soy, cashews, almonds, brazil nuts, filberts and pecans—slices them up and adds them to a bowl of bran cereal and bran flakes. He eats the mixture dry. That's breakfast. For lunch he has a breakfast bar. For dinner he goes back to dry cereal and nuts. It's not arroz con polio, but it keeps him out of the box, and he hasn't had a pill in months.
"There's no pressure," he says. "I hope to ride until I'm 40. I just do my job, come home, eat my dinner. There's nothing to worry about anymore. If I get into a bad streak, or something goes wrong, I know how to handle it better."
"Laffit is riding better than he ever has," says DeGregory, now the agent for Chris McCarron. "I still think he's the greatest rider in the world and will always think that." McCarron, who has ridden hundreds of times against Pincay, says Laffit's strength makes him a great rider: "We call him the Incredible Hulk because he's so strong. And he has finesse. And his rhythm in stride upon the horse is better than anyone's I've ever seen. If communication between horse and rider does really exist, he has it more than anyone else."
Shoemaker, the master, says Pincay has "ample quantities of everything you need...good seat, balance, strength, strong hands, a great head for the sport."
Pincay's consuming obsession with winning has mellowed, but the intensity with which he lives remains, off the racetrack as well as on. For most racegoers, the abiding vision of Pincay is of a rider in the final drive, persuading the horse to forget his fatigue and make a strong finishing run. His old friend Doc Jocoy sees that, and something else as well.
"I have a house on the beach," Jocoy says, "and when the horses are running at Del Mar I see him every morning at Six o'clock. I have this big bay window that overlooks the beach. Every morning you can see this lone figure in a sweat suit jogging down the beach, alone against the sea. He comes into view on one side of the window and disappears on the other side. Then he'll come back jogging the other way. He must be deep in thought. You know how some people jog with their heads up, waving at people? Not Laffit. His head is down. He is all alone. That sticks with me. He's a champion jockey, a man at the pinnacle of his profession. But there he is jogging along the beach. Out there keeping that body going. What does that tell you?"