08/29/2003 12:00AM

Memories as fine as the weather


DEL MAR, Calif. - Paul Lo Duca was only trying to spare the old guy embarrassment. Sixty-feet, six inches is a long way for a 56-year-old to throw a baseball, even if it was merely the ceremonial first toss at the beginning of last Sunday's Dodgers game.

"You don't have to go all the way to the mound," said Lo Duca, the Dodgers' all-star catcher. "Just go to the edge of the grass."

Fat chance.

Laffit Pincay, former sandlot second baseman, turned Lo Duca's courtesy into a challenge, stepped to Dodger Stadium mound, and fired one into the catcher's waiting mitt. The crowd went wild.

"I wanted to feel like a pitcher," Pincay said. "Boy, when I got up there, it sure looked like a long way to home. But I was already there, so I wasn't going to come down again. I think I threw a pretty good strike."

Pincay will be spared such pressure on Sunday at Del Mar, when the latest in a series of Southern California farewells will take place. This one will not have the emotional impact of Pincay's day at Hollywood Park last month, when the tears flowed and Pincay was presented with all manner of sentimental gifts (including a Dodgers jersey with the number 9,530, in honor of his record win total).

Pincay will, however, be asked to address the Del Mar crowd, never his favorite chore. He would much rather be making the weight and riding the card. But at least, when it comes to Del Mar, Pincay has plenty of pleasant memories from which to choose.

Among other things, Pincay has won more races at Del Mar than any other jockey. His 1,011 accumulated over 27 seasons comfortably tops Bill Shoemaker (889 in 26 years) and Chris McCarron (849 in 24 years). Pincay was summer champion five times, beginning in 1976, when he won 86 races in 43 days. Go ahead, do the math.

At the beginning of his career, Pincay spent his summers at Arlington Park, and then Saratoga, where the big money lived. But by the mid-1970's, Del Mar was beginning to compete in terms of purses. And nothing could beat the weather.

"Everyone told me how beautiful it was," Pincay recalled. "So what happens the first summer I rode there? It rains for 16 straight days."

Rain or shine, Del Mar offered Pincay a cleansing few weeks by the sea, a break from the endless routine of racing in L.A. For many years he lived right on the ocean, in one of the beachfront homes not far from the track, and each morning he would perform the same peaceful ritual that took him back to his Panamanian youth.

"I got up, did my exercise, and then I would go fishing," Pincay said. "That was my passion, because I love to fish."

Casting his line into the Pacific surf, right in front of his rented house, Pincay would catch his dinner nearly every day. Corbina, croaker, perch - nothing escaped Pincay's hook.

"I used to catch a lot of the little perch, and then make a soup," Pincay said. "Then I'd invite all the guys from the track for soup at the house."

In the afternoons he would work. Very hard. The list of Pincay's 96 stakes wins at Del Mar begins with the 1976 Palomar Handicap on Just a Kick and ends with the 2002 I'm Smokin Stakes on Siberland. In between, Pincay won four Del Mar Futurities, four Del Mar Debutantes, and four Eddie Reads, while winning Del Mar stakes aboard champions Bayakoa, Landaluce, Tight Spot, Chinook Pass, Tasso, Phone Chatter, Althea, and Heartlight No. One.

Everyone will bring their favorite Pincay stories to the track on Sunday. But for sheer grit and determination, this one is hard to top.

In 1978, his third season at Del Mar, Pincay left town briefly to ride Affirmed in the Aug. 19 Travers Stakes at Saratoga. The trip turned out to be a disaster. Affirmed won, but was disqualified for fouling his arch-rival Alydar. Pincay took the blame, and regrets the ride to this day. How did he react?

"I felt terrible," Pincay said. "I flew back to Del Mar, because I had a full card the next day. I think I won something like four races."

That is exactly what he did.