There are jockeys, and then there are racing legends. Laffit Pincay, Jr. definitely belongs in the legend category. It is easy to make a case that Pincay is the greatest jockey to ever ride a horse, and many people who love horse betting made lots of money when the diminutive Panamanian was in the irons.
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Laffit Alejandro Pincay, Jr. was born on December 29, 1946 in Panama City, Panama. His father was a successful jockey on the tracks of Panama and Venezuela, so Laffit was exposed to the business of horseracing from a very young age. After obtaining his jockey license and having success in his native country, Pincay garnered the attention of American horsemen. Trainer Fred W. Hooper and jockey agent Camilo Marin believed that Pincay would do well in the United States and convinced him to move his tack north. His American debut took place at Arlington Park in Chicago, and Pincay was an immediate success. He won eight of his first eleven races and sent a message that he had the skills to compete with the best riders.
As it so often happens in horseracing, Pincay reaped the benefits of his early success by getting placed on better horses. Many jockeys have had their careers boosted or stalled by their initial performances. There could be no doubt that Laffit was more talented than the rest, but he has admitted that after his successful debut at Arlington most of the mounts he received were of high quality. Pincay made the most of his good fortune and rode hard, but he also had an affable personality that resonated well with horsemen and racing fans. In his debut year, Pincay was given the Mike Venezia Memorial Award for his sportsmanship and character. It was a trait that would follow Pincay his entire career and win him the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1970. Pincay always took the high road, preferring to let his riding ability speak for itself. He was a tough competitor, but on the track he was always conscious of the safety of his fellow riders and their horses.
In 1973, Pincay would be thrust into an emotional roller coaster that became an example of how cruel the racing gods can be. Pincay was chosen by trainer Frank “Pancho” Martin to ride the stellar colt Sham. The colt had an amazing rookie year and was tapped by many as a serious threat to the Triple Crown. Yet, there was another horse on the East Coast that was making a name of his own—Secretariat. It seemed written that the two would have a great rivalry, and they did, but the heartbreaking part of it for Pincay was that Sham would have been the best horse by far in any other year. Secretariat and Sham faced off for the first time in the Wood Memorial where Sham bested an ailing Secretariat and finished second. Secretariat, battling an infection in his mouth which made the bit uncomfortable, was third. The stage was then set for the Triple Crown series.
Secretariat recovered in time for the Kentucky Derby and won while breaking the track record while being chased throughout by Sham. What many did not at first realize that day was that Sham had also broken the existing track record, running the race in 1:59 4/5, making him just the second horse in history to run the race in less than two minutes. Secretariat was the first. Even more amazing was the fact that Sham had hit himself on the starting gate as he began the race, knocking out some of his teeth.
The story was much the same in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later. Sham once again ran a phenomenal time but could not best Secretariat. As the horses made their way to the Belmont Stakes, Sham was now relegated to the role of spoiler. Trainer Pancho Martin decided to try a new approach. Believing that his horse had more stamina and early speed, he instructed Pincay to press Secretariat early instead of taking aim at him with a late run. The failure was catastrophic. Secretariat responded to the early challenge by running faster as the race progressed, leaving the exhausted Sham and the rest of the field in his wake on the way to a 31 length victory.
For his part, Pincay took the fortunes of horseracing in stride. He never was bitter, even though he would most certainly have won the Triple Crown if it had not been for Secretariat. Pincay continued his winning ways, moving to California and winning the Hollywood Gold Cup a record nine times. In 2004, Pincay was honored with the creation of the Laffit Pincay, Jr. Award. It was presented annually by Hollywood Park to a jockey who exemplified a complete dedication to the sport of horseracing. A life-sized bust of Pincay was also placed at Santa Anita park.
All of Pincay’s accomplishments are too great to list, but he amassed 9,530 wins in his stellar career. Many of them were stakes races and high-profile events. Until late November of 2006, Pincay was the all-time leader in wins. Russell Baze, however, was closing in on the record. It was a given that he would break it, but no one knew the exact day it would happen. Pincay made his way to California where he attended the races on consecutive days so that he could be there when Baze broke the record. When it finally happened, Pincay joined Baze in the Winner’s Circle to shake his and congratulate him. Many had posed the theory that Baze’s record should be annotated because most of his wins came on less competitive circuits while Pincay earned his in the toughest races in America. Ever the man of class, Pincay dismissed these claims and praised Baze for his efforts while asserting that winning any horse race is a difficult feat.
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