12/04/2006 12:00AM

The iron men of horse racing


INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Before letting Russell Baze ride off into the northern California sunset, with dead aim on 10,000 winners and beyond, there are a couple of thoughts that linger.

First, shed no tears for Laffit Pincay, displaced by Baze and now merely second on the list of all the thousands of men and women who have pulled on those strange white pants for a living. Laffit will be just fine.

In fact, relinquishing the title to a worthy rival like Baze finally frees up the entire Pincay record for renewed appreciation. For way too long, Pincay has been identified as either the guy who was chasing Bill Shoemaker in the history books or the guy who caught and passed him. In many ways, the winning mark defined Pincay, and he proudly embraced the honor. But it was only part of the tale.

Unfortunately, as far as Pincay was concerned, keeping the record was out of his hands, especially after he was forced by injury into retirement. Consider, though, what Pincay numerologists have to fall back on:

31 – Years Pincay has had a place in racing’s Hall of Fame.

8 – National titles, including seven times leading money winner.

7 – Breeders’ Cup winners, including the 1986 Classic with Skywalker and three runnings of the Juvenile, in which Pincay’s horse defeated the likes of Storm Cat, Alysheba, and Easy Goer.

6 – Eclipse Awards, including five earned between 1971 and 1985, and a sixth Special Eclipse Award for breaking Shoemaker’s record in 1999.

4 – Triple Crown events, topped by Swale’s 1984 Derby and featuring three straight Belmonts for Woody Stephens.

2 – Bronze statues, one at Santa Anita and the other in his native Panama.

20 – Combined victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Travers, Arlington Million, Santa Anita Handicap, and Hollywood Gold Cup.

There is a reason only seven jockeys have won more than 7,000 races. Baze and Pincay are living proof of what it takes to be so consistent for so long. Baze, though, is the only one still riding, and Pincay was on hand at Bay Meadows last Friday when Russell reached the top, saying adios to Laffit’s 9,530.

The others, other than the late Bill Shoemaker (8,833), were all hard at work at their second careers. It is broadly known that Pat Day (8,803) devotes much of his time these days to the work of backstretch chaplaincies. Chris McCarron (7,141) is in the midst of his first semester as head of the North American Racing Academy in Kentucky, and Angel Cordero (7,057) keeps busy booking mounts for John Velazquez when he’s not working horses for Todd Pletcher.

That leaves David Gall, who won his 7,396th race on the final mount of his 43-year career on a soft, late summer night at Fairmount Park in September 1999. Gall wasn’t a household name before he retired, in spite of his winning total, so it’s no real surprise that he’s been running a touch below the national radar since then. He is, however, a bona fide sports celebrity in the central Illinois town of Collinsville, where he trains a string of 14 runners at Fairmount.

If anyone can identify with the “big fish/small pond” criticism leveled at Baze through the years, it’s Gall. Although he rode at any number of tracks throughout the Midwest, Southwest, and Canada, modest Fairmount was the scene of his most prodigious winning – enough to earn national championships in 1979 and 1981.

Gall rode until he was 57, and his career wasn’t exactly limping at the end. His two winners on that final day gave him a share of the Fairmount meeting title. After Gall’s last ride, only Shoemaker, Pincay, and Day could boast higher totals.

Immediately upon retirement, Gall began training.

“I was afraid I’d have too much time on my hands, and it kind of scared me,” he said Monday from his home in Collinsville. “I was used to a pretty hectic pace. So I jumped in right away, and I discovered there was a lot more to it than I thought. I’m almost too busy now.”

Gall counts himself a lucky man, with no lingering aches and pains from any number of relatively minor injuries sustained through his long career. If his friends and fans had their way, though, Gall would be in constant heartache over the fact that he has been regularly passed over by the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. Each of the other six in the 7,000 club are enshrined, including Baze.

“I really don’t care one way or the other, even though people say I should care,” said Gall, who does have a place in the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame. “I liked what I did as a jockey, and when I stopped riding, that’s it.”

It’s the offseason at Fairmount now, which gave Gall plenty of time last week to watch Baze pass Pincay via simulcast, including the record race. Not surprisingly, Russell is Gall’s kind of guy.

“He tends to business, and he’s been steady all the way,” Gall said. “Kind of reminds me of that ballplayer with the Orioles, Cal Ripken. Nothing spectacular, just grinding away year after year, day after day. Like Woody Allen said, 90 percent of success is just showing up. That’s what gets it.”