04/03/2003 12:00AM

A chihuahua derby for Pincay

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ARCADIA, Calif. - On Saturday, Laffit Pincay Jr will celebrate the 25th anniversary of his victory aboard Affirmed in the 1978 Santa Anita Derby. It was a great moment, burned into the history books by Affirmed's eight-length romp over 11 hapless opponents, which essentially discouraged any West Coast colts from heading east in pursuit of the Kentucky Derby. With the red horse in the race, why bother?

That 1978 running was Pincay's fifth of seven wins in the Santa Anita Derby, a list that also includes Alley Fighter, Solar Salute, Sham, An Act, Muttering, and Skywalker. Typically, though, Pincay will mark the occasion without fuss. He will be content to spend a quiet day in his new Arcadia home, fiddling around the house, playing with his chihuahua, maybe watching a little TV.

What he definitely will not do, however, is tune into the telecast of this year's Santa Anita Derby, even though it offers a compelling brew of Triple Crown hopefuls that includes Atswhatimtalkinbout, Kafwain, Buddy Gil and Ministers Wildcat. Pincay already has a fractured neck. He doesn't need a broken heart.

"I haven't been watching any races at all," Pincay said on Thursday morning. "Only one. A couple of weeks ago my son asked if he could watch the Florida Derby. I said okay. Then that horse went down on the turn, and I thought, 'Oh, [expletive]!' "

The fatal breakdown of Midway Cat at Gulfstream was the last thing Pincay needed to see. He was relieved to know that Jorge Chavez survived, though he did sustain a severe concussion.

"I haven't been keeping on top of who's doing what," Pincay said. "I just want to forget about racing for now. I'm not involved. And in that way I feel a lot better."

A month ago it was hard for Pincay to feel much worse. It was on Saturday, March 1, when he went down at the dirt crossing of a hillside turf race, fracturing the second cervical vertebra - the "hangman's bone" - in three places and suffering a compression fracture to the seventh thoracic vertebra in mid-spine. It was by far the worst injury in his career of 39 years.

The 56-year-old Pincay also walked around for four days, in pain and with a stiff neck, before he knew it. "Can you believe that?" he said. "I was a walking time bomb for those four days, and I was going to try to come back to ride with a broken neck in three places. Unbelievable. I'm really, really, really lucky."

Immediately after getting an accurate diagnosis, Pincay had his neck stabilized with a halo device attached by four screws to his skull and secured to his torso with a tightly fitted, fleece-lined vest. Let him describe what life is like in such bondage: "It's a pain in the butt," Pincay began. "Even to talk on the telephone, I've got to squeeze the phone between my face and the bars on the side of my head."

Immediately, the caller felt guilty. Pincay continued. "Then I had to get used to sleeping on my back, facing the ceiling. I never slept that way before. Only on my side.

"When I lay down, though, my head is suspended by the pins in my head. My head does not touch the pillow - the halo does. It was such a strange feeling, and it was causing a lot of tension in my shoulders, close to my neck.

"What I do now is put a towel under there, inside the bars around my neck. I know the towel is not holding the weight of my neck, but mentally, it's like I have a cushion, like putting my head on a pillow. I'm telling you, it makes such a difference."

How about exercise? There is nothing wrong with Pincay's arms and legs.

"I really can't do anything yet, because this thing is tight," Pincay said. "If I do too much I get a lot of pressure on the pins in my head. And this vest, it's made out of lamb's wool or something. When I get hot, it itches like a sonofabitch. So I try not to get hot.

"At the beginning I was very cautious," he went on. "I did everything very slow. But now, sometimes I forget. I almost act like I have nothing wrong with me. I have to tell myself, wait a minute. Like the other day, instead of laying down easily, I just jumped on the couch. I thought, 'Whoa! What's the matter with me?!' "

To accommodate the installation and regular maintenance of the halo screws, Pincay had his handsome head of dark brown hair shaved off.

"It's growing back," he said with a laugh. "But it's growing straight up. I look like a porcupine." On Monday, Pincay will submit to another magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the progress of his recovery. He knows, though, that he will be a prisoner of the halo for the foreseeable future. Any consideration of comeback or retirement is on hold for now.

"One of the fractures is separated about a quarter of an inch," Pincay said, "and the doctor says for that to heal it's going to take a little longer, because it has to calcify, and then get hard. But I'm probably a better healer than he thinks I am."