Panamanian-born jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr. (born 1946) raced in the United States for the first time in 1966, winning eight of his first 11 events and becoming one of the most esteemed jockeys in U.S. flat-racing history. Surpassing the record established by legendary thoroughbred racing jockey Bill Shoemaker, he was the world's winningest jockey by his retirement in 2003, and his record stood until Russell Baze surpassed it in 2006.
Laffit Alejandro Pincay, Jr., was born in Panama City, Panama, on December 29, 1946. The son of noted jockey Laffit Pincay, Sr., he barely knew his father, who left home when Laffit Jr. was young and moved to Venezuela to ride. Although he dreamed of being a baseball player, Pincay's short stature allowed him to advance only so far in that sport: his skills at second base helped his little league team advance to the Latin-American Little League playoffs in Nicaragua. Although he was cautioned that his size made him too big to find success as a jockey, the 15-year-old Pincay was now determined to follow his father's path into horseracing. He started at the bottom, working as a hotwalker unsaddling and leading hot and sweat-soaked horses on cool-down walks after training runs and races.
Through grit and determination, Pincay trained as a jockey and won his first-ever race on May 19, 1964, riding a horse named Huelen to victory at Panama City's Hipodromo Presidente Remon. He decided to model his career after those of fellow Panamanian Braulio Baeza, a jockey who had recently won the Kentucky Derby and was a two-time Belmont Stakes winner. Following Baeza's lead, the 17-year-old looked for a sponsor to take him to the United States and he found one in prominent horseman Fred W. Hooper. Aided by Baeza's Cuban jockey's agent Camilo Marin, Pincay signed a contract to be paid $500 per month to ride for Hooper. He made his U.S. debut at age 19, racing Hooper's two-year-old filly Teacher's Art to a victory at Chicago's Arlington Park in July of 1966. Pincay won his next ten races, attracting the notice of the American press.
Speaking only Spanish, Pincay now mastered the English language by watching the television game show Hollywood Squares during his free time between races. He also helped his mother relocate to the Los Angeles area, and he visited her every Tuesday, when the city's racetracks were closed. Pincay met his first wife, Linda Radkovich, in 1967, while racing horses for her father. The couple bought a home in the Griffith Park area of Los Angeles and raised their two children, Lisa, born in 1970, and Laffit Alexander Pincay III, born in 1975.
By 1971, the 25-year-old Pincay had racked up 1,848 wins, even tying a record at Hollywood Park for winning six races in a single day. Although his competitive nature pushed him to emulate noted jockey Bill Shoemaker (1931–2003), he had to overcome a problem that did not plague the American jockey. At 5 foot, 1 inch tall, Pincay was large for a jockey and maintaining his 117-pound racing weight (113 pounds plus the weight of the saddle and bridle) was a constant battle. (By contrast, Shoemaker stood at 4 feet, 10 inches and weighed 91 pounds). His weight did give him an advantage, however: he was a strong rider and could control unruly mounts as well as calm skittish ones. Describing Pincay in the New York Daily News, Bill Finley once wrote of the jockey that “he's kept himself hungry for nearly every minute of his 35 years in the saddle. It's the only way he knows how to take a 140-pound body and shrink it by 23 pounds while adding on arm muscles that Popeye would die for.”
In fact, beyond the view of his many fans, Pincay's weight problems overshadowed his entire career, at points even threatening his mental and physical health. To maintain racing weight, he limited his caloric intake to 650 calories a day, then attempted to reduce water weight with pills, exercise (he often ran around the race track), and time in the jockey's room sweatbox. Continually adjusting his diet to achieve the level of protein and other nutrients that could sustain physical exertion, he still experienced a constant gnawing hunger. Even chewing food and then spitting it out did not help, and the constant deprivation made him seem tense and irritable to others while also pulling him into depression. Although he often considered leaving racing, his singular determination and love of competition kept him going.
As a competitive athlete, Pincay also had to wrestle with emotional defeat. During the 1973 racing season, he rode a thoroughbred named Sham, who was considered the best horse in the western circuit. After a win at the Santa Anita Derby, horse and rider placed second in the Wood Memorial, besting Sham's rival Secretariat. In the Kentucky Derby that year, they were again beat by Secretariat, but only by a fraction of a second. Competing in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Downs, Sham again lost to Secretariat, this time by two lengths. When the horses met again at the Belmont Cup, they were neck and neck down the backstretch, but Sham tired and fell back, leaving Secretariat with a significant victory. A small consolation was the fact that, a year before, Secretariat had won thoroughbred racing's coveted Triple Crown: consecutive trophies at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and Belmont.
1975 proved to be a challenging year for Pincay, who was almost continually in the saddle. Now age 28, he became the youngest jockey ever to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. This accomplishment was overshadowed, however, by the death of his close friend, Mexican jockey Álvaro Pineda, who had died during a freak starting-gate accident at Santa Anita in January of that year.
Between 1982 and 1984, Pincay won three consecutive Belmont Stakes, riding Conquistador Cielo, Caveat, and Swale while becoming only the second jockey to rack up three consecutive wins in this race. 1984 proved to be one of his best years: he ended the season in third place nationally, with $10.9 million in purses.
Unfortunately, Pincay's win at the 1984 Kentucky Derby turned out to be a prelude to a family tragedy. Six months earlier, his wife Linda had been diagnosed with a ruptured appendix and gangrene, and the mix of emotional pain and depression prompted her to attempt suicide on two occasions. On January 18, 1985, Pincay was at Santa Anita, prepping for the next race, when he received a phone call and rushed home to find Linda dead. His daughter Lisa, then 15, was in the house when her mother shot herself.
Although Pincay finished the 1980s with five Breeders's Cup wins—two in 1986—his career began to decline during the 1990s. In 1990 he won only 150 races, his lowest total yet for a full year of riding. While he would have Breeders Cup wins in both 1990 and 1993, by 1997, many in the sports media believed that Pincay's career was almost at an end. That year, he won only 75 races and picked up $2.5 million in earnings, his lowest total since 1969.
Meanwhile, on the personal front things had started to turn around for Pincay. In 1992, he married Jeanine Dorn. The couple would have a son, Jean-Laffit, born in 1994, but would later divorce. The crucial shift in his career came late in the 1998 racing season when he found a diet that worked. Shifting from energy-rich but hard-to-digest grains such as bran, he began eating fruits that provided fuel via fructose. Upping his daily caloric intake to 850 calories without gaining weight, he now had the fuel needed to increase his endurance. Also fueled by a stable marriage and family, Pincay rebounded, unencumbered by the depression that had haunted him for decades.
On December 10, 1999, Pincay won the sixth race at Hollywood Park, riding a three-year-old named Irish Nip. When he crossed the finish line, it was his 8,834th win, breaking the current record for most wins by a jockey that had been set by Bill Shoemaker in 1990. Expecting this moment, the stadium shot off fireworks during the celebration that followed and presented Pincay with a brand new Porsche convertible. “Laffit's excellence and commitment to the sport over a long and illustrious career is truly remarkable,” his trainer, Wayne Lukas, told Finley at the time. “And now for him to reach the pinnacle of success is a fitting tribute to all that he represents.”
Having surpassed Shoemaker's career record, Pincay was now determined to reach 10,000 victories, despite his age. Although his wins continued to mount in the first months of 2003, an accident in early March changed everything. While riding Trampus Too during his fifth race of the day at Santa Anita, the 56-year-old jockey was hemmed in on a turn and lost his seat. Pincay was taken to a Los Angeles hospital. It initially appeared that he had suffered contusions in his neck muscles, and his name remained on the schedule to ride the following Friday. The injury was in fact far more serious: he had broken a cervical vertebra in his neck.
This was not Pincay's first serious injury: he had racked up 11 broken collarbones and ten broken ribs, had endured two spinal fractures and two punctured lungs, and suffered two broken thumbs and a sprained ankle. However, his age now worked against him. In April of 2003, after spending eight weeks in a halo cast, Pincay announced his retirement from racing. Among the top jockeys of his generation, he had 9,530 victories to his credit, only 470 short of his goal.
Pincay's 39-year career was a stellar one. In addition to his election to thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame and his Triple Crown races (the 1984 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes wins aboard Swale as well as his Belmont Stakes wins aboard Conquistador Cielo in 1982 and Caveat in 1983), he received five Eclipse Awards for outstanding jockey, including a special Eclipse Award in 1999. A significant award had come even earlier, foreshadowing the career that would follow: In 1970 he received the prestigious George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award honoring a rider whose career and personal conduct exemplifies the very best example of participants in the sport of thoroughbred racing. In 1996, Pincay was voted the winner of the Mike Venezia Memorial Award, honoring his “extraordinary sportsmanship and citizenship.”
Between 2000 and 2002, Pincay was among the top 15 top-earning jockeys in the United States, placing in the 12th spot in 2001 and at number 13 in both 2000 and 2002. His wins as a jockey crested at 9,530, placing him just ahead of Shoemaker, and his record would stand until Russell Baze topped it on December 1, 2006, during the fourth race at Bay Meadows.
Pincay rode over 48,000 horses during his racing career, many of them on mounts that became Hall of Fame inductees. Among them were Gamely, Susan's Girl, and Desert Vixen, which he rode to victory in the Beldame Stakes. Other notable mounts included Bayakoa, Diazo, John Henry, Relaunch, Steinlen, and Tight Spot.
Reeve, Richard Stone, and Edward L. Bowen, Belmont Park: A Century of Champions, Eclipse Press, 2005.
New York Daily News, December 12, 1999, Bill Finley, “Laffit to Be King after Years of Fighting Personal Demons.”
New York Times, September 28, 1974, Joe Nichols, “Triple for Pincay,” p. 65.
Daily Racing Forum, http://www.drf.com/news/spotlight-stays-pincay-family (January 9, 2014), Jay Hovdey, “Spotlight Stays on Pincay Family.”
Midland Daily News (Midland, MI), http://www.ourmidland.com/news/article/Broken-Neck-Bone-Could-End-PincayCareer-7191851.php (March 5, 2003), Beth Harris, “Broken Neck Bone Could End Pincay Career.”
National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, http://www.racingmuseum.org/hall/jockey.asp?ID=213 (November 25, 2004), “Laffit Pincay, Jr.”□