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There are winners and losers.  But there is mostly losing.  We'll suffer through all manner of losses to get to the one victory.  And one victory will feed us…sometimes for a lifetime.  Winning makes us believe -- if it can happen once, it can happen again. 
 

For jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr., it happened 9,530 times.  At his most recent average, that means another horse beat his to the wire about 40,000 times.  


My brother came out to LA in March to play the horses with me like he always does in the spring.  On Friday we watched a horse fall, break both her front legs, and flail in the air, dying, as the ambulance rushed to her.  But even when they got there, they couldn't calm her down.  Couldn't make it stop.  Every time she came down from rearing, her legs seemed to break again.  She couldn't stand and she couldn't not stand and she died while we watched.  Her jockey was lying nearby on the dirt.  It was the first time I'd considered not returning to the track. 


But we did.  And the next day, we were standing in the same place, when in an unimportant $40,000 claiming race, Rock of Gibraltar skidded and fell in the strip of dirt crossing the downhill turf.  We couldn't believe it was happening again.  But then the horse stood up and trotted past us.  And Laffit was getting up too.  Walking away unassisted.  Another horse (later disqualified) had swung wide into the stretch, knocking Pincay off his mount and then rolling over him.  The announcer said he would be fine. 


But he wasn't.  He'd broken his neck in two places and we'd just witnessed his last ride.  


He's ridden hurt before.  Limped out to the paddock to take his mount.  Jockeys don't get paid if they don't ride and maybe old habits are hard to break.  He sure doesn't need the money.  But Laffit was a jockey's jockey.  He was showing the next generation how to be a champion.  In the 1986 Gold Cup, he rode with much of the cartilage in his left ankle torn (remember, jockeys are in a perpetual squat with all of their weight on the balls of their feet).  He had to cut his boot just to get it over his swollen ankle.   He beat the favorite horse -- won the race by 1.5 lengths but was unable to give his usual victory wave as he entered the winner's circle.  "I was too tired," he said.  "I was afraid I'd fall off."


At 57, Laffit Pincay, Jr. was the oldest man on the track.  And the winningest jockey of all time.  He rode for forty years.  Forty years in the desert that is L.A.


It took him a few months to decide if even this last spill would stop him.  And it probably wouldn't have except for his family.  Having sustained this injury, another fall might paralyze him.  "It's definitely a sad day for me," Pincay said.  "The doctor recommended I never ride again.  It's a very sad day for me."


The son of a famous jockey in Panama, Pincay came to the United States at age seventeen for a $500 a month contract.  He learned English watching Hollywood Squares and went on to win his first race in the U.S. in 1966 at Arlington Park in Chicago.  


It ended on July 13 of this year, surrounded by the greats of the sport and the fans who've been watching him all their lives..


A Sunday afternoon at Hollywood Park…Hollywood Gold Cup Day -- fitting since Pincay has won the Gold Cup nine times.  The track stopped still for almost an hour for the proceedings.  A rainbow of color as the jockeys filed out to the winners circle:  hot pink and white triangle, 3W in the center; a white X on black silks; J&NG inside a gold circle on royal purple -- all this down front of four photographs blown up larger than life…one black and white…from a far away time…Laffit beginning what has become this…history…something the man in that photograph couldn't've known at the time that picture was taken.


I lean over the rail of the club house to see him walking down the tunnel in a seamist suit, blue and grey tie, his son at his side.  A cheer goes up and he seems surprised, like he did sometimes after winning a race.  He takes his place standing behind the wheelchair of Bill Shoemaker, the man who's title he took when he won his 8,834th race just before Christmas in 1999. 


And I think about Shoemaker, who rode so long, so well, broke all the records, only to have a little too much to drink one night with friends, once he could finally indulge in such calorie-laden festivities.  He lost it all in an instant -- not on a horse, but in a car, at his own hand.  After surviving the most dangerous sport of them all.  Those strong legs that he nor any horse will feel again.  


Life is mostly about losing.


But here are the jockeys and all they can talk about today is winning.  Luck and loving.  Alex Solis, a fellow Panamian worries he won't make it to the finish line without crying.  And he doesn't.  Gary Stevens rescues him.  "You were the one I wanted most to beat," he says.  "But I knew that to do it, I had to have a better horse."  Earlier Stevens had labeled this the "end of an era."  Then it's Pat Day's time from the other side of the line up and Laffit turns in the direction of his benediction.  "The Lord bless you and make His face to shine upon you."  The guy in front of me turns around, elbows the stranger behind us, "This guys a born-again Christian -- a jockey -- what the--!"  
 

Chris McCarron, Mike Smith, Jerry Bailey, Julie Krone, they all wish him good times, good meals, the good life of afternoon Dodger games and only jockey Eddie D. says he hates to see him go out this way.  Prematurely.  Less than a year ago, Eddie Delahoussaye fell out of the game too.  Two men with broken necks there in the winners circle.
 

Burt Bacharach is there too.  "I've know you since you were seventeen years old," he reminds him.  And Laffit keeps looking even though it's hard.  "I knew you when you couldn't get a mount.  When you couldn't keep the weight off.  When you were talking about heading up north just to keep this thing going.  I asked you to ride my first horse.  And because of you I won my first race.  I'm sure if not for this last fall, you could've been riding until you were 62 or 63." 
 

Trainer Dick Mandella says a few words but mostly what he says is this:  "The racetrack's a hard life."  
 

And I wonder how Pincay is still standing.  Hearing all this at once.  His life in front of his eyes.  What accountability is in the eyes of those who love you -- who know you.
 

The Dodgers love Pincay -- respect him as one of the great athletes and here is a jersey to prove it.  He's an honorary Dodger, #9530.  And the Lakers follow suit.  Another jersey.  Same number.  There is a letter from Washington.  Bush appreciates his contribution to this country and the example he's set of great athleticism and heroism.  Governor Gray Davis had a letter typed up too, which garnered the only boos since the last race.  And the mayor of Inglewood is back in church from earlier in the day, trying to get a witness.  "Laffit Pincay, Jr. -- the greatest athlete of all time and many things in the works -- already this is Laffit Pincay, Jr. Day in the great city of Inglewood, but furthermore, soon…just as soon as we can get the signs made, 90th Street that abuts Hollywood Park will be renamed Laffit Pincay, Jr. Drive."    

 
Weighed downed by this blanket of praise, Pincay is handed the mike.  "I'd like to thank the president of the United States," he begins and I'm laughing and crying like you do when you're grateful in a sad movie for any relief.  I look at the guy beside me and he looks back -- both of us in our own personal history, also shared in this moment with so many, helpless to change the outcome…like any horse race.  "…and the Dodgers and the mayor."  He is trying.  Like he does.  Like he has for so long.  And he's never been given an easy terrain.  Gracious in his surrender.  "They put me on all the winners."  He weaves and swings wide and when he crosses his finish line it's with these words:  "I still have this fire in me I can't put out."
 

Broken English, a broken neck, broken records, a broken heart.  I remember a line from an L.A. writer:  "Everything's so breakable."  Yet all of these parts become the whole of a legend.
 

I go back to my box where the sun was shining when I left.  A man from Compton beside me with his wife. It's her birthday and they are kind there in the new shade. 
 

"I've watched him since I was a boy," he tells me.  "My dad used to bring me here."  And we're quiet for a while.  
 

Just a few yards away, they're clearing the winners circle for the inheritors of the throne…making way for the future.  "There go the pretty pictures," he says to no one.  
 

There are winners and losers.  But there is mostly losing.

by Delight Underwood


Laffit Pincay Jr., 57, is one of the greatest jockeys in Thoroughbred racing. The Panama native has won six Eclipse awards including an award for singular achievement last year and is the only six time winner among jockeys, trainers or owners. He was inducted into racing Hall of Fame in 1975. On December 10, 1999, he won his 8,834th race to become the winningest jockey of all time. He is the all time leader in wins at Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, and Del Mar. He has won 13 races worth $1 million or more. He has lead purse earning list seven times and has been in the top 10 of every year from 1966 to 1989. He has won the Breeders' Cup seven times. Among his top rides is Swale who he rode to win the 1984 Kentucky Derby.

from Horse Racing Directories



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