12/23/2002 12:00AM

Calder honors top athlete Pincay

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MIAMI - One of the world's greatest athletes will be the honoree at Calder on Saturday. The special program will celebrate the remarkable career of Laffit Pincay Jr. Pincay, with over 9,400 career winners to his credit, will turn 56 a week from Sunday. At an age when most athletes in most sports have long since retired, Pincay is competing against other top athletes, many of them not yet born in 1965 when Pincay came here from his native Panama, largely at the behest of the late Florida breeder Fred W. Hooper.

The Pincay program is another example of the creative manner in which Calder's marketing team does business. Calder has enjoyed considerable success in creating enthusiasm for racing during the dog days of summer with its imaginative Summit of Speed and Festival of the Sun programs.

"For some time now we've tried to make the point that winter racing in this area, with visiting stars from New York and the Midwest, begins in December," said Ken Dunn, Calder's president. "We started weekend promotions to call attention to this quality racing with our two Grand Slam cards, with six graded stakes that have been well received. We would like to have a promotion every weekend in December and decided on a tribute to leading jockeys, which is in keeping with our policy that all our promotions have a racing theme."

The promotion will include a Pincay bobblehead doll giveaway, with the statuette in Hooper's famed red, white, and blue colors; posters of the jockey by Daily Racing Form's Peb; an autograph session for the public with Pincay; and a silent auction of racing memorabilia, donated to fund several charities of Pincay's choice.

One of the items expected to attract attention in the silent auction is the wooden putter used by Eddie Arcaro. Nicknamed "The Master," the skilled and avid golfer often spent the weekend in Cuba and played in a tournament at the Havana Country Club.

There was considerable gambling involved and Arcaro came to the 18th green needing an eight-foot putt to win $20,000.

Years later, recalling the story, Arcaro said that as he steadied for the putt he suddenly froze and was unable to take the club back. His partner, the late Jack Westrope, recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, realized he had to do something.

"I finally found your choking price," Westrope said.

Arcaro, exploding with laughter, stepped back to the putt and drained it to take the money.

Pincay has ridden many of the best horses of our time. His personal choice list is headed by Affirmed and includes such stars as John Henry, Perrault, Sham, and Greinton. He rode Swale to win the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes of 1984 and has had notable associations with other crack runners. But five years ago, running out of good horses to ride in the Los Angeles area, he was prepared to move his business to San Francisco.

"I was never in better physical condition," he said. "I started going to a gym regularly and logged lots of time on the stepmill and also began to get some live mounts from trainer Bill Spawr and decided to remain in Southern California. It was the right decision."

Pincay still makes a major effort to continue his riding career. His daily diet is an intake of only 850 calories. It doesn't sound like much and isn't, he said. He emphasized that his diet is a far better one now compared to years past. At that time, he recalled, he often fasted for days at a time. It was killing him.

With his lifestyle cheerier and the quality of his mounts vastly improved, Pincay is enjoying life as rarely before. He is looking forward to his visit to Calder as a mini-holiday and hopes to continue a late-career surge that has restored his prominence on the American racing scene.