07/13/2003 11:00PM

Celebration of Pincay brings cheers and tears


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Riding a 1,000-pound animal, pushing fearlessly through tight holes, battling back from repeated injuries, and maintaining a 117-pound figure inside a 140-pound frame were things from which Laffit Pincay Jr. never flinched. Speaking in public, that always made him anxious.

Pincay held it together gracefully until he neared the end of his remarks at the close of a classy, yet bittersweet, retirement ceremony on Sunday at Hollywood Park. Then he started to thank his family, and he lost it.

Fighting back tears, and forcing anyone with a soul to get a tear in his eye and a lump in his throat, Pincay was forced to pause. His youngest son, Jean-Laffit, walked up next to him, a look of concern on his face, a handful of tissues clutched tightly. He gave his father a hug. And Pincay, as he did thousands of times in the saddle, pushed through mightily to the finish, eliciting a roaring ovation from the appreciative crowd. He spoke for six minutes, made every point he wanted to make, and never once glanced at his notes.

The retirement came more than four months after an accident at Santa Anita that forced Pincay to retire. He is not going willingly, he admitted. "I feel very sad," he told the crowd, "because I'm leaving a sport I really love. There's still a fire inside me I cannot put out."

The half-hour ceremony, a tribute coordinated by Allen Gutterman, Hollywood Park's vice-president of marketing, was long on sentiment and appreciation and gloriously free of hokey schmaltz, befitting the mien of the honoree.

Several of Pincay's contemporaries attended, including Jorge Velasquez and Angel Cordero Jr., who provided the ceremony with one of its rare moments of humor when he said of Pincay, "I loved to fly with him, because I got to eat a double meal."

Pincay, surrounded by his family - wife Jeanine, sons Laffit III and Jean-Laffit, daughter Lisa, and mother Rosario - as well as fellow riders, trainers, racing officials, jockey agents, valets, and other dignitaries, such as composer Burt Bacharach, stood in the winner's circle, with four oversize photos as a backdrop. A video of career highlights was shown on the track's large infield screen, including his victory in the 1984 Kentucky Derby on Swale, and the win at Hollywood Park in December 1999 that pushed Pincay past Bill Shoemaker as the world's winningest rider.

There were a number of speakers. The most emotionally wrenching toast came from jockey Alex Solis, a fellow native of Panama whose lone request when he moved to California 20 years ago was to have his locker next to Pincay's.

"I wasn't sure I could make it to the wire without crying," Solis said in apology as he glanced at his handwritten notes. Solis proved prophetic, struggling to get through his speech while choking up.

"All dreams are possible. You proved that," Solis said. "Thank you for the legacy you have left behind in Panama, the United States, the whole world, all the great things you have done for us and for the human race."

Chris McCarron, who had his retirement ceremony at Hollywood Park 13 months earlier, said, "This is a very sad day for horse racing. You are an unfillable void in the jocks' room."

Gary Stevens called Pincay "an inspiration to every jockey. When they made you, they broke the mold. When we beat you, we beat the best."

Shoemaker, whom Pincay stood next to during the ceremony, said, "I consider it a great privilege to have ridden with the greatest rider in the history of racing. Not only are you a great rider, but you are a great human being, and a great family man."

Jay Hovdey, executive columnist for Daily Racing Form, said he was "sure 'Seabiscuit' will be a darn fine movie, but you have given us the greatest show on earth."

Tom Meeker, the chairman of Churchill Downs, owner of Hollywood Park, read a framed note honoring Pincay from President George Bush. Rick Baedeker, the president of Hollywood Park, read a commendation to Pincay from California Gov. Gray Davis.

Pincay, a huge sports fan, received several gifts, including jerseys from both the Dodgers and Lakers, each with his name on the back and the number 9,530, signifying his career victories. Tim Smith, the commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, presented Pincay with a bronze figure of a horse wearing saddle cloth number 7, commemorating Pincay's seven victories in the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships.

The biggest cheer, though, came when Roosevelt Dorn, the mayor of Inglewood, said that the city's 90th Street, which bisects Hollywood Park and the adjacent Great Western Forum, would be renamed Pincay Drive. Dorn held a street sign that read "Pincay Dr.," which he gave to Pincay.

"I'm overwhelmed by all this," Pincay said. "This gives me an opportunity to say goodbye to the racing fans, and I love you."