Jockeying for stardom: Cal tracks missing top attractions

Jun 17, 2003 6:27 AM

Chris McCarron has retired. Eddie Delahoussaye has retired. Laffit Pincay Jr. has retired.

Kent Desormeaux has bid sayonara to Southern California until Del Mar opens on July 23, and Gary Stevens is enjoying a brief sojourn at the Royal Ascot meet.

In less than a year, that exodus has depleted the granite nucleus of the Southern California jockey colony, with Hall of Famers McCarron, Delahoussaye and Pincay hanging up their tack. Desormeaux currently is plying his trade in Japan and Stevens in England, leaving perplexed bettors to wager on horses ridden by newcomers like Mark Johnston, Anthony Lovato and David Nuesch, or veterans Alex Solis, Patrick Valenzuela and Victor Espinoza.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Even the jockeys have been forced to adjust to the sudden and dramatic changes.

"You still come in and ride, but it’s tough to explain what it’s like without those major guys in the room," said Iggy Puglisi, at 29 a veteran of more than 12 years in the saddle. "It’s like going to work in another company with new bosses. You still have your job, but not with the same head honchos you looked up to every day."

Pincay retired on April 29, after breaking a bone in his neck in a spill at Santa Anita on March 1. His demeanor in the jocks’ room was one of quiet strength. No one was respected more than the 56-year-old legend, who won more races than anyone in history, 9,530.

McCarron retired of his own volition last June, while Delahoussaye called it quits early this year on the advice of doctors, following a spill at Del Mar last August. McCarron and Delahoussaye were unquestioned leaders in the jocks’ room, as well as Pincay. Chris could at times be confrontational with the media, while Eddie D. preferred to keep a low profile. He let his riding do his talking.

"All three were outstanding leaders in the jocks’ room, but each one was so different," Puglisi said. "Laffit and Eddie were quiet guys, while Chris was more outspoken. Their input meant a lot to all of us. Even though Laffit may have only said two words to you, you remembered them forever and knew exactly what he meant by them.

"I still wish they were here, although their absence does diminish the competition and obviously that helps business for the rest of us. On the track, you never wanted to hook Laffit turning for home, or have to try and outsmart Chris, or try to out-time Eddie.

"Their absence makes things a little easier for the rest of us and presents better opportunities, but all three were phenomenal riders."

Phenomenal indeed.

In the pantheon of racing, Pincay, McCarron and Delahoussaye reigned supreme on the track, but even more significantly, they were deities among their peers. Each is a righteous role model. All are good family men who value what is morally right, vanishing traits in a world that has dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, especially when it comes to principles.

"It is odd without those riders," Puglisi said. "The colony doesn’t seem quite as strong as it was. They were a little older than the group we’re riding with now, but there still are jockeys like Gary Stevens, Mike Smith and David Flores we can learn from. The room is still packed full of potential, but to have been able to ride with Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron or Laffit is a story I’ll be telling to my great grand kids, hopefully. It was a pleasure. It was unbelievable."

And not likely to happen again.

THE HOMESTRETCH: Bill Spawr, Pincay’s main man through thick and thin before Pincay retired, says Laffit’s absence still hasn’t sunk in. "We’re all going to adjust," the 63-year-old trainer said. "His doctors have told him to keep his new neck brace on for another month, so he’s got about three more weeks to wear it. I don’t know what he’s going to do (in the future), but he’s keeping his weight off. He’s only put on like four or five pounds." . . . Spectacular Bid, who died on June 9 at 27, was one of the greatest race horses of all time, winning 26 of 30 starts, his last 10 in a row, including a walkover in his final race, the Woodward on Sept. 20, 1980. The last time I saw Spectacular Bid race in person was at Delaware Park, on Aug. 26, 1979. The racing secretary had written a prep just for the son of Bold Bidder, who was getting ready for the Marlboro Cup on Sept. 8, after finishing a controversial third to Coastal in the Belmont on June 9. Only five horses entered the 11/16-mile allowance race at Delaware. I remember Bill Shoemaker and Don Brumfield sitting on a bench outside the jockeys’ room at the Stanton oval, waiting for the call to the post. Shoe, of course, was on The Bid, while Brumfield was on a rank outsider, who would finish a distant last, with Spectacular Bid winning by 17 lengths. I asked Brumfield how he felt about facing Spectacular Bid, and the Hall of Fame hardboot had this quick and prophetic response: "I’ll have a good view of his butt."