Pincay, Laffit Alegando, Jr.

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PINCAY, Laffit Alegando, Jr.

(b. 29 December 1946 in Panama City, Panama), Thoroughbred jockey known for scoring the most career wins of all time.

Pincay's father, Laffit Alegando Pincay, Sr., was a jockey, and his mother, Rosario, was a newspaper distributor. When Pincay was still young, his father deserted the family and moved to Venezuela to ride horses. Pincay was an undisciplined youth who on several occasions very nearly got into serious trouble with the police. He was passionate about sports, however, and baseball gave his life a degree of structure. Eventually he became the second baseman for the Panamanian national baseball team. This was a considerable achievement, especially in view of his size—he was just five feet, one inch tall and weighed 117 pounds.

Pincay was described by the writer Michael Watchmaker as a rider "who can practically pick a tiring horse up and carry him across the finishing line." Like his fellow Panamanians Jorge Luis Velasquez and Braulio Baeza, Pincay was immersed in the horseracing subculture from an early age. He first took a job as a groom and a "hot walker," a person who helps a horse warm down after exercise. He worked for no pay, trying to find an opportunity to ride. Pincay began his racing career in 1964 in Panama, and by the end of his rookie season he was established as the leading apprentice in his country. A year later he was Panama's top jockey, and in 1966 he joined Velasquez and Baeza in the United States, signing a three-year contract with the owner Fred Hooper. In 1968 Pincay married Linda Radkovich; they had two children.

Pincay's extraordinary successes and his astonishing longevity were remarkable in light of the fact that his career was plagued by a never-ending battle with weight. During the 1970s his many wins took place against a background of diuretics, diet pills, jogging, fad diets, and injections of protein and vitamins. Pincay spent hours in the steam and sauna rooms at the track; he even had a private steam system set up in his home. By 1973 he was forcing himself to vomit after eating. The New York Times reporter Steven Crist wrote that for seven years Pincay "was setting records and winning titles even though he was dizzy, nauseated, and hostile most of the time."

In 1976 Pincay fired his agent Vince DeGregory because he felt DeGregory was pressuring him to race too often and had failed to be supportive when he finished out of the money. A critical turnaround for Pincay was a 1978 race at Del Mar, California. His horse lost by a nose, and Pincay saw the failure as the direct result of his lack of fitness. He hired the nutritionist Joyce Richards and embraced a Spartan diet of grains, nuts, and fruits totaling 850 calories per day. More than twenty years later, he still adhered to this diet. Pincay's ability to sustain a career of nearly four decades has been attributed to the caliber of the horses he has been invited to ride and to his phenomenal strength.

Pincay was elected to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1975 at the relatively young age of twenty-nine. His precocious rise to prominence came from his daily eagerness to ride, love of travel, and amazing stamina in coping with numerous racing "starts" that would have overwhelmed a lesser jockey. He received the Eclipse Award as the nation's leading jockey six times and won three consecutive Belmont Stakes, triumphing aboard Conquistador Cielo in 1982, Caveat in 1983, and Swale in 1984. On 14 March 1987 he became the only jockey to ride seven winners on a single program, a feat he achieved at the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California. By the end of the 1992 racing season, Pincay had made 37,473 starts and recorded 7,888 first-place wins, 6,210 second-place finishes, and 5,174 third-place finishes. In virtually 50 percent of his starts, Pincay had placed. In his many successful years of racing, one race remained special for Pincay: his 1984 Kentucky Derby win riding Swale.

Pincay was a record setter as early as 1973. In that year he became the first jockey to go over the $4 million mark, with winnings of $4,093,492. A year later, on 13 December, he bested that figure with race purses that amounted to $4,094,560. Pincay's defining moment was his eclipse of Willie Shoemaker's career record of riding 8,833 winners, with $123.4 million in stakes money. On 10 December 1999, in the sixth race at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, California, Pincay was riding Irish Nip. He steered the horse to a two-length triumph and his 8,834th career win. For his victory Pincay received a white Porsche convertible, courtesy of the Hollywood Park racetrack. Shoemaker was on hand to say, "I can't think of anybody better to break the record than Laffit." Pincay's response highlighted an athletic credo buoyed by a passion for racing: "Many times I thought about giving up, but the reason I didn't … was the love of the game, the love of riding horses." Following this win, Pincay did not rest; he rode in the day's final two races.

In 1985 Pincay's wife of seventeen years committed suicide after undergoing painful surgery and suffering months of depression. Pincay married again in 1992. He and his second wife, Jeanine, had one child. The words on his 1975 Hall of Fame induction plaque understate yet encapsulate Pincay's genius, calling him a "strong rider who could keep unruly colts to their task." In a close race Pincay could "make the difference at the wire." His longevity was legendary. While in 2001 Pincay was no longer the stellar jockey of the 1970s and 1980s, he continued to be a competitive rider.

Contemporary Newsmakers 1986 (1987) has an early career profile of Pincay that makes excellent use of primary source materials. Shorter portraits are in Ralph Hickok, Who ' s Who of Sports Champions: Their Stories and Records (1995); David L. Porter, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports (1995); and George B. Kirsch, Othello Harris, and Claire E. Nolte, eds., Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States (2000). Jockey News has many valuable reports on Pincay's racing accomplishments. The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, has archival material on Pincay's life. Andrew Beyers captures the magic of the day Pincay broke Shoemaker's record in "The Best in the Business Is Still Coming On Strong," Washington Post (11 Dec. 1999). For an excellent overview of Pincay's life-long battle to maintain his best riding weight, see Richard Hoffer, "It Takes a Hungry Man," Sports Illustrated (3 Sept. 2001).

Scott A. G. M. Crawford