Alex Solis has idolized Laffit Pincay Jr. since he was a teenager.
"The first time I knew who Laffit was, I was 14 years old and had just enrolled in the jockeys’ school in Panama," Solis said. "Everyone at the school would follow what was going on at President Remon race track in Panama, and Laffit was one of the first names I knew in racing. That’s how great he was even then."
That was in the late 1970s. Pincay, like Solis a native of Panama City, Panama, was already a rising star who would go on to win more races than any jockey in history, 9,530, before a spill at Santa Anita on March 1 would force his retirement at age 56 on April 29.
This Sunday at Hollywood Park, Pincay will be honored, not only for approaching 10,000 victories during a celebrated career of nearly four decades, but for being a role model without pretense, and for displaying an unmatched code of ethics both on and off the track.
Although Solis graduated from jockey school in 1979 at 15, even at that young age he recognized a good rider when he saw one. "When the races were shown from America," Solis said, "I would watch them and see how Laffit rode, and modeled my style after him. I knew right away I wanted to be like him."
Despite an exemplary career, Solis still has quite a way to go. But he has a lot of company, because Pincay’s achievements are for the ages: 44 riding titles, six Eclipse Awards, victories in major races throughout the world, and winning mounts on legends of the turf such as Affirmed and John Henry.
"The first time I met Laffit, I was an apprentice in Florida," recalled Solis, now 39. "I had recently come from Panama and been riding in Florida for four or five months. Laffit came to ride at Gulfstream Park and that was the first time we met. It was great to meet someone I had admired for so long. I knew that in order to accelerate my career as quickly as possible, I would have to learn from someone who had already experienced what I planned to go through, and that someone was Laffit. He helped me become the rider and the person I am."
Understandably, the two Panamanian countrymen became close friends. Pincay is the godfather of Alex’s son, Austin.
"When I moved from Florida to California in 1985, one of the first things I requested was to have the same valet (as Pincay), because I felt I needed to learn a lot more, and the easiest way to do that was to work beside someone I admired. Of course, that was Laffit. He helped me throughout my career, especially during times that were really bad for me. He was always supportive and positive and prevented things from getting worse. He always looked out for me. We developed a great relationship and it got a lot better through the years. Laffit not only is a great role model and a great teacher, but a great friend, too."
Pincay has no enemies, which is why he will receive a sincere farewell on Sunday, not only from contemporaries such as fellow Hall of Fame jockeys Eddie Delahoussaye and Angel Cordero Jr., but his legion of dedicated fans, be they "whales" or $2 show players. Pincay, shy and private away from the track, was ever focused on it. He always gave fans their money’s worth.
As he neared Bill Shoemaker’s record of 8,833 career wins in December of 1999 at Hollywood Park, Pincay faced a daily horde of media, but either through modesty or concentration or perhaps both, he never made eye contact with its meddling members as he left the jockeys’ room for the paddock.
Unfortunately, Pincay did not go out on his own terms. But he was still riding with the eye of the tiger at 56. Pincay did not live to ride. He rode to live.
"Thank God he’s going to be all right physically," Solis said. "Because we are so close, I know how much getting 10,000 wins meant to him. But most of all, I know how much fun he and his family were having with his riding the past few years. He had his weight under control, he was getting good mounts, and it looked like it was never going to stop. Then all of a sudden, it’s over, and it’s too bad, because he was so set on reaching 10,000. It’s kind of sad."
Solis, of course, remains in steady contact with Pincay.
"We talk all the time and we do things together," Solis said. "We have the same friendship we had before. Our friendship goes beyond racing, but the (jockeys’) room is not the same without him, or Eddie (Delahoussaye) and Chris (McCarron, each of whom retired with the past 13 months). It’s hard to replace those guys and the great knowledge they had. You looked up to them when you came to the room, and you enjoyed riding with them.
"You never like getting beat (in a race), but those three always gave you a great lesson, and that’s what I’m going to miss the most. They beat me a lot of times, but I learned a lot from them. Hopefully, I can use it in the future
"Laffit’s rhythm on a horse was amazing. That’s why he got so much run out of a horse without riding it too hard. That’s one thing I admired about him and Eddie and Chris. They’re all great guys and very unique in their own way. I don’t think their kind will come around again. They set a standard that will be difficult to surpass."