12/27/2001 12:00AM

Camera-shy couple got nudge

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Laffit Pincay was standing at his cubicle in the Santa Anita jockeys' room, dressed in street clothes, with his arms extended and wiggling his toes. He was describing the work of a magician he had seen on a recent holiday in Las Vegas.

"She got in a box and stood like this," Pincay explained. "Then she got somebody from the audience to touch her feet. Then they took just the top half of her here, and put her over there. Unbelievable, man. I don't know how she did it."

The rest of us are not as easily impressed. In Thoroughbred racing, the standards for baffling illusion are much, much higher, and Pincay has only himself to blame. How else do you explain the accomplishments of a man who turns 55 on Saturday, yet continues to compete at the loftiest levels of the game, while maintaining the serene demeanor of a guy who knows exactly how to pull those rabbits out of a top hat?

Unbelievable, man. How does he do it?

Even the self-effacing Pincay is occasionally impressed. One look around the Santa Anita jockeys' room, where Laffit is celebrating a birthday for the 35th straight season, and it's plain to see why he says there is never an easy day in Southern California.

Gary Stevens and Alex Solis glow with star power. So does Mike Smith, who is here now, firmly established. Go ahead and choose among David Flores, Garrett Gomez, Corey Nakatani, and Victor Espinoza. You can't lose. Even Patrick Valenzuela has returned, physically fit and hopeful, while Jose Valdivia and Tyler Baze are on the rise. And over there, in a corner with a well-worn couch, Chris McCarron and Eddie Delahoussaye hold court for anyone smart enough to tap their wisdom.

The influence of Pincay pervades the scene. He is the sensei, the guru, the lord of this unusual ring. There are specifics to his craft, to be sure, but with work they can be mastered. After that the game becomes a contest between mind and body. Pincay never minimizes the challenge.

"Even when you're winning races, this is a tough game," Pincay said. "If you're doing good, you always want to stay at that level. If you're not doing good, the pressure is to do better. And it's pressure you are putting on yourself, so you never get away from it."

Pincay has survived the pressure for 37 years. Through Wednesday's racing he had won 9,274 races. Other great athletes born in 1946 include Reggie Jackson, Stan Smith, and Larry Csonka. Remember them?

"My age, I don't think about it really," Pincay said. "I just feel very young. I get up early every day, sometimes before five. I don't sleep that much, and it doesn't bother me. I get up, do my things, my exercises, and go to work."

Pincay's status as an American sports icon requires very little help. A few good horses this winter is all he needs to keep the fire burning, on his way to 10,000 winners. At this rate, the only thing left for him to accomplish would be an appearance in the "Sports Illustrated" swimsuit edition.

"Don't say anything," Pincay warned. "I'm not supposed to tell anybody."

Well, it figures. Since SI started adding "real people" to its gallery of supermodels, a number of famous athletes and their spouses have been displayed in various states of, um, casual attire. It was only a matter of time before the talent scouts would take a look at Pincay's sculpted physique and wonder if he and Mrs. Pincay might like to stop by for a few snapshots.

"I didn't say anything," Pincay said. "I said to her, 'Whatever you want to do.' " Smart guy.

Jeanine Pincay, age 30, demure wife and devoted mother, was waiting for her husband outside the jockeys' room Wednesday afternoon when the subject of her international swimsuit debut was broached.

"I want everybody to know that I didn't want to do it," she protested. "My son made me do it. He said, 'Mom, don't worry about it. All they can say is you're not that great. I think you're beautiful.' "

Jean-Laffit, playing nearby, joined his mother and confirmed his side of the story.

"I said that you and Dad shouldn't care what other people think as long as you're okay with what you're going to do." The boy is 7.

"This is a pretty big deal for us, because we are so private," Jeanine Pincay added. "I don't even walk on the beach in a bathing suit. The only thing that makes me feel good is that my husband was very happy with the way I looked."

This reporter can reveal nothing more about the Pincays' contribution to the SI swimsuit edition, which usually hits the streets in February. Besides, it has nothing at all to do with how Pincay will perform aboard horseback this weekend at Santa Anita, which is the most important business at hand.

And Jeanine Pincay should be given time to deal with her sudden burst of exhibitionism.

"I really don't care," she insisted. "It's all about my husband, because that's who they'll look at."

Her husband politely disagreed.

"I don't think they did it for me, not when you see it," Pincay said. "I think they did it because of her, believe me."