03/07/2003 12:00AM

The Mig still recalls hell of the halo

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Just so everyone is completely clear on what Laffit Pincay is going through, as a result of the fractures he sustained last Saturday to the second cervical vertebra of his neck during the 48,486th ride of his career, a call was placed to Richard Migliore in the Aqueduct jockeys' quarters before the program started on Friday.

Just like Pincay, Migliore once sustained a cervical fracture that required the external immobilization of the head with a halo device. The halo, although angelically named and invented in 1959, could be easily mistaken for an instrument of medieval torture, since it is literally screwed into the skull to effectively eliminate the option of any independent head movement.

Migliore's injury occurred in 1988, but the memory was still vivid enough for the rider to wince at the thought of his famous California colleague undergoing a similar ordeal.

"I had sustained a lot of trauma," Migliore said. "I was having a lot of trouble with a lot of organs, and my body kept trying to shut down on me. I had a severe concussion, so I was kind of in and out as they were putting on the halo.

"They shaved the hair in four sections of the scalp," he went on. "Two pins were inserted just above the temples, in front of the ears, and two behind the ears at the same level. I remember just feeling a great deal of pressure. Not so much pain, but intense pressure."

While he wore the halo, Migliore was forced to remain in bed and in traction. The good news is he had to wear the halo for only two weeks. Let him describe the bad news.

"I don't want to scare Laffit," Migliore began, "but to this day, the single worst pain I've ever experienced is when they took out those screws. You're basically coming out of a vice-like device. The pain didn't last for long. But it was very intense."

Never mind scaring Pincay. I've gone white just writing it down. It's bad enough knowing that the game's greatest star is out of action for an indeterminate amount of time. What's worse is knowing how close Pincay came to an even more tragic scenario, and how little it took to put him in a contraption that makes him a virtual prisoner of his own body.

"He's always pushed himself hard," said retired trainer John Russell, who has known Pincay since the late 1960's. "Having to be restricted, with a halo of all things, will probably be damn difficult for him. It would be hard enough for a sedentary person like myself, but for Laffit it will be hell."

Based upon his superior physical condition, his mental fortitude, and his burning competitive nature, no one would bet against Pincay returning to action, just as Migliore did after his wounds healed 14 years ago. And never mind that Migliore was 25 at the time, while Pincay is 56. For Pincay, such arithmetic never has applied.

But if he decides to return, strong and healthy again, it will not be for his army of fans. He owes them nothing. It will not be for his friends and family. They live for the day he finally retires. And it won't be for his devoted chihuahua, Lola, who would just as soon her master never left her side.

No, if Pincay comes back from this one, it will be for him, and for him alone.

In the meantime, while he mends, there are great piles of highlight reels that can be run to fill the void. One of them occurred 30 years ago, in the 1973 running of the Santa Margarita Handicap, in company with the Hall of Fame mare Susan's Girl. Russell was her trainer at the time.

"It was one of the most gratifying races I ever won," Russell said.

For those who are impressed by the depth of this Sunday's field for the 66th running of the $300,000 Santa Margarita - featuring Got Koko, Affluent, Starrer, and Sightseek - prepare to stand in awe of the bunch that collided in the 1973 version of the race.

There was Convenience, who beat champion Typecast in their fabulous match race the summer before. There was Chou Croute, America's sprint champion who was proven at a route of ground. And there was Hill Circus.

All she did was beat the boys in the 1972 Del Mar Handicap.

Charlie Whittingham sent forth both Le Cle and Pallisima, who had each won two major stakes the previous year. Gordon Campbell countered with Minstrell Miss, the 6-year-old veteran who went on to win the Ramona. And, of course, there was Susan's Girl, winner of nine stakes in 1972 when she reigned as champion 3-year-old filly.

"You have to appreciate what a brilliant ride Laffit gave Susan's Girl that day," Russell said, and it was a classic. Pincay deftly extracted his long-striding filly from a box on the far turn, taking back just enough to give her room, then came running through the stretch to beat Convenience and Jerry Lambert by three. It was Lambert who put her in that box.

"To do what he did, Laffit must have known he had a ton of horse," Russell said. "Because that's something only the great riders do."