07/16/2001 11:00PM

A drama deserving of more


DEL MAR, Calif. - Did anyone see that dark blue Porsche flying down Interstate 5 Monday night? The California license plate read "8834+" and its wheels were barely touching the ground.

Laffit Pincay Jr. set sail for Del Mar on the wings of another riding championship at Hollywood Park, his 15th, and his first at the long summer meeting since 1991. As he approached Hollywood's closing-day program, he recalled the events of 10 years ago, when he was a mere lad of 44 and fighting hard to keep his place in the game.

"I remember it went down to the last race," Pincay said. "But it was the next-to-last race that I really remember. I thought I won it. I was sure I had won it. But David Flores beat me by a nose. Then I won the last race for Vincent Timphony to win the title."

There's nothing wrong with Pincay's memory. The date was Monday, July 22, 1991, and that next-to-last race was a monster. At the end of the mile on the grass for 3-year-old maidens, there were eight runners lined up across the track, hitting the wire at intervals of nose, nose, head, head, half, neck, nose. The second nose on the line belonged to Pincay's horse, Steely Dawn.

That left Pincay tied with Gary Stevens at 65 wins. Undaunted, he went out in the final race and beat Alex Solis by a head on Handsome Weed to take the title.

It was great theater, just as it was at Hollywood last Monday when Pincay and Solis put on a show for the 2001 title. Too bad nobody was watching.

The idea has been floated to end long meets like Hollywood Park and Santa Anita on a Sunday, with a bang, instead of on a Monday, with a sad whimper.

The Pincay-Solis showdown provided evidence in support of such a move. Sunday would have been a great day for the climax. Bobble-head Pincay dolls were jiggling everywhere, like little Dennis Millers laughing at their own jokes. A solid crowd of about 18,000 turned out to see three stakes, including the $500,000 Swaps. There were media in attendance. Even Pincay and Solis were acting as if they had just one last chance.

Solis won the first race to go up 60-59. In the second, on a horse named Gimme the Willys, Pincay knifed between horses deep in the stretch and drew even at 60-60. With Solis sitting in the room, Pincay won the third to take the lead, 61-60. Then Solis tied the score at 61 in the eighth race, a starter allowance, with a win so fine over Garrett Gomez that the placing judges needed seven minutes to make the call. Pincay had the best view. He was third, beaten a half.

It could have ended there, in a spectacular dead heat between the godfather of Panamanian riders and his most devoted disciple. But then, sigh, Hollywood Park cranked it up again on Monday for no good reason other than raking in offtrack handle as the host signal. Playing to a television audience and small "studio" crowd of 8,600, Solis won twice and Pincay won three, including the final race of the day aboard Ride and Shine to win the title, 64-63. It was deja vu all over again.

Unfortunately, they made about as much noise as trees falling in a deserted forest. Such drama can not be manufactured, but racetracks should at least feel obligated to set the stage and close their meetings with flair.

Remember when racing used to be show business?

Hopefully, Pincay and Solis will keep the fire burning at Del Mar. If there is any justice, however, David Flores deserves at least a head start. Last Friday afternoon, while preparing to saddle for the second race, Flores was kicked in the side of the head by a horse named Forward March. According to witnesses, it made a sound you would not want to hear twice in a lifetime. Throbbing and bleeding, with nine cracked teeth and a wrenched shoulder, Flores was lucky to be alive.

He waved to the crowd from the stretcher, disappeared into the ambulance, and then spent three hours in the local ER before a doctor saw to his worst wounds.

Believe it or not, Flores was back on Saturday to win the first race aboard a horse trained by Darrell Vienna, who also trains Forward March. "I have no idea why the horse did what he did," Vienna said. "He's very even-tempered. I was about to give Dave a leg up when the horse gave a little crow hop. I was backing up, but for some reason Dave was still walking forward. That's when the horse lashed out."

Flores wasn't the only casualty, although he was the worst. When the dust cleared, Vienna thought he had chosen the wrong side in a street brawl.

Bodies were everywhere. Scott Chaney, his assistant, was picking himself out of a flower bed. Groom Jose Salazar hung onto the horse for dear life and got his ribs raked in the bargain.

"It was amazing," said Vienna, relieved that everyone survived. "I was the only one who didn't get hurt." Then he quickly added, "But I was affected emotionally."

Flores took off his last ride on Saturday and stayed home Sunday and Monday to mend. A lot of those mounts were very live. Pincay picked up one winner on Saturday and another one on Monday, early in the day.

So there it is, the cold math of the game. History will record another great achievement for Pincay, and rightfully so. But in order for such history to happen, David Flores had to get kicked in the head.