02/27/2003 1:00AM

The Master tries for a sixth Big Cap masterpiece


ARCADIA, Calif. - Sitting in the jockeys' room about an hour before Thursday's first race at Santa Anita, Laffit Pincay Jr. was grooving to the tunes on a CD, his eyes closed, rocking back and forth contentedly.

"I love Glen Campbell," he said, when asked what he was listening to. "'By the Time I Get to Phoenix.' I love that song."

For the first time in his life, Pincay was showing his age.

And, it's the only way he shows his age. Now 56, Pincay on Saturday will ride in the Santa Anita Handicap for a record 32nd time. Let that sink in. Thirty-two times. It is another record whose scope gets numbed by the day-in, day-out excellence that marks Pincay's career. He has won 9,527 races; a jockey beginning today could win 250 races a year for 38 years, and still not catch Pincay.

Pincay first rode in the Santa Anita Handicap in 1967, the year "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" was released. Pincay isn't stuck in the 60's, though. He has won the Santa Anita Handicap five times over the years, was disqualified from a sixth, and has a longshot chance on Saturday with Sligo Bay, a turf horse who is switching to the dirt for the first time.

"He's a good horse. He tries," Pincay said. "It's a small field. The way he's working, I wouldn't be surprised if he runs a big race."

Neither would Beau Greely, who trains Sligo Bay.

"We've wanted to try him on the dirt," Greely said. "The whole bottom side of his pedigree is dirt. His dam is a full sister to Saint Ballado and Devil's Bag, and he's from the same family as Rahy and Singspiel."

Sligo Bay, a 5-year-old son of Sadler's Wells owned by Andrea Pollack's Columbine Stables, has won 4 times in 17 starts. His biggest victory came in November, when he won the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup.

"He's already won a Grade 1 on turf," Greely said. "He's going to stand at stud in America, so it would be huge if he could win a Grade 1 like the Santa Anita Handicap on the dirt. He's always breezed well on dirt. Of course, running in a race is a different story. If it doesn't work out, he'll go back to the turf. If you're going to take a shot, why not in a million-dollar race?"

Pincay has plenty of experience with Big Cap runners who could compete on both turf and dirt. His first winner, Cougar II in 1973, was adept on both surfaces.

Pincay's memory of Cougar's race is uncanny. Though it was 30 years ago, he rattled off details that were confirmed later by a perusal of the American Racing Manual.

"My horse made the lead, and then he started to get tired," Pincay said. "He hadn't run in a while. He came up to the race on works alone. Charlie Whittingham did a great job getting him to the race. He won by a nose over Kennedy Road. There was a stewards' inquiry, because we brushed in the stretch, but I wasn't worried, because I knew I didn't bother him."

Pincay said winning his first Big Cap was "a great feeling.

"It's the best race out here," he said. "I know I've won five, and I'm very proud to have won it. Even just once, it's very rewarding."

Pincay won the Big Cap for the second time in 1977 with Crystal Water, who outfought longshot Faliraki to win by a head. "He made the lead, and when I hit him a couple of times, he quit running," Pincay recalled. "So I hand rode him, and he responded. But at one point, I thought he was beat."

The horse Pincay calls the best he ever rode, Affirmed, won the Big Cap in 1979. Reminded of that race, Pincay's face lights up.

"Oh, he was really strong through the stretch," Pincay said. "Tiller was the horse to beat, but when we came down the stretch, my horse felt really, really good. I knew nobody could beat me." Affirmed beat Tiller by 4 1/2 lengths, and his time of 1:58.60 remains a Big Cap record.

Pincay also won in 1981 with John Henry. The next year, though, Pincay rode against John Henry. He finished first with Perrault, but was disqualified.

"That was a big disappointment," Pincay said. "During the race, I never thought I bothered the other horse, but after I looked at the picture, I could see he came out enough. We never bumped, just floated out."

Pincay's fifth Big Cap win came with Greinton in 1986. As with Cougar, Greinton was making his first start in four months in the 1 1/4-mile race.

Pincay is winless in 13 Big Cap mounts since then. Maybe by the time he gets to Phoenix, he'll win another.