At 55, Pincay seeks Kentucky Derby gold

Apr 30, 2002 9:35 AM

As if Laffit Pincay Jr. hasn’t set enough records in a career spanning nearly four decades, he could establish another in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

If the 55-year-old rider wins aboard Medaglia d’Oro, he would become the oldest jockey to win the Run for the Roses in its 128 year history. Pincay’s dear friend, Bill Shoemaker, set the record at age 54 when he won the 1986 Derby on Ferdinand.

"It would be nice, but I really don’t think about it," said Pincay, the world’s winningest rider and one of the world’s most gracious and humble athletes. "I just think about winning the Derby. It definitely would mean a lot to win it again. It’s such an exceptional race."

Certainly no more exceptional than Pincay, a man who for years has lived in a body deprived of its full calorie supplement in order that it be sculpted at 115 pounds, when it would be natural at 135.

Certainly no more exceptional than living on fewer than 1,000 calories a day to maintain his riding weight, or surviving the tragic suicide of his first wife, or, in a contemporary society with values turned upside down, being a model father and husband.

And certainly no more exceptional than a man who puts forth as much effort trying to win a $10,000 claiming race as he exerts trying to win the Kentucky Derby.

The fact that Pincay has won the world’s most famous race only once in 20 attempts should provide added incentive when he takes the track aboard Medaglia d’Oro on Saturday. Bet on the horse, but don’t bet on Pincay being nervous.

"I haven’t worked him since he won the Wood," Pincay said of Medaglia d’Oro, the Bobby Frankel-trained son of El Prado who was second by a head to Buddha in the Wood after winning the San Felipe Stakes with Pincay up. "I just know that he’s doing really good and I think the Wood is going to help him a lot. That was only his fourth start and he ran great. He fought hard, so that race should do him some good. I’m not concerned at all about his getting a mile and a quarter. He can go the distance, in my opinion."

Pincay was considered over the hill by naysayers a few years ago, but through perseverance, he resurrected his career. Even if he hadn’t, he would have had the satisfaction of winning the Kentucky Derby at least once. That victory came in Pincay’s 11th Derby ride, aboard Swale, in 1984.

"Some jockeys have the good fortune to win the Derby more than one time," Pincay said. "Once was good enough for me, but if I can do it again, I would really appreciate that.”

These days, Pincay appreciates life’s simple pleasures, but still rides with authentic yet understated passion for the game he loves.

Pincay’s world record win total of 9,343 and counting has been accomplished through that passion. “Some riders take off their mounts when they have a bad hair day,” said Pincay’s main client, trainer Bill Spawr. Not Pincay. Take opening day at Hollywood Park for example. Pincay had two early mounts scratched, leaving him with only one horse to ride the entire day, a filly named Widow Black in the sixth race. As usual, Laffit was in the jocks’ room more than three hours before the first race. He had to wait five more hours to fulfill his obligation in the sixth race. Widow Black won by four lengths.

That’s typical of Pincay’s unwavering mental balance. He is as competitive as ever and rides to win. But he accepts losses like a gentleman.

“I don’t have any expectations really, other than enjoying myself every day and riding as many winners as I can,” Pincay said. “I’m enjoying riding right now, but I’m not trying to be the leading rider in the country or anything like that, because that’s too much work.” Pincay laughed heartily after that comment, like a man content in the knowledge that he possesses two of life’s most precious gifts: good health and peace of mind.

A few short years ago, when Pincay was considered to be in the homestretch of his illustrious career, he might have been bumped from a serious Derby contender such as Medaglia d’Oro, despite an unyielding ride that resulted in his San Felipe victory.

Asked after that race if he was going to replace Pincay in the Wood with a “big name” rider, trainer Bobby Frankel looked me in the eye and glared back: “I’ve got a big name rider.”

Does he ever.