08/07/2007 11:00PM

Pincay knows Bonds's stress


DEL MAR, Calif. - It has been a long time since Laffit Pincay Jr. thought of himself as a potential big league player, and it is a long way from the neighborhood diamond where as a teenager he played second base for the team from El Barrio del San Felipe, a coastal suburb of Panama City.

"They told me I was too small to be a ballplayer," Pincay said. "Okay, so I decided to become a jockey instead."

But even after a 39-year career as a jockey, the ballplayer in Pincay dies hard, which is why it should be no surprise to learn that the retired Hall of Famer could be found at Dodger Stadium last week, watching Barry Bonds as he pursued the all-time home run record held by Hank Aaron.

Bonds did not come through on the night Pincay was on hand, but Pincay held no grudge. He had been there before, with the eyes of his sport watching every move in a slow march to the inevitable.

"He looked very relaxed from what I could see," Pincay said Wednesday, the morning after Bonds finally broke Aaron's mark by hitting home run No. 756 in San Francisco. "But I'm pretty sure what was inside of him was different. It was for me. I'm sure he had in his mind that he wanted to do everything perfect."

In early December 1999, as he bore down on the all-time record of 8,833 winners held by Bill Shoemaker, Pincay felt a performance pressure above and beyond the demands of his usual high standards. Never one to purposely draw attention to himself, the rider was worried that his inability to spin off three or four wins in a single day and end the suspense was creating an embarrassing inconvenience.

"There were so many people coming to the track just to see that happen," Pincay said, recalling his anxiety. "All the reporters were going out of their usual schedule just to report whatever happened. My friends and family were coming every day, no matter what I did. I wanted to get it over with."

Typical Pincay, more concerned about the imagined disappointment of others rather than the historical significance of his own achievement. When, on the afternoon of Dec. 10, 1999, he reached 8,834 winners in a grass race at Hollywood Park, Pincay was more relieved than anything else. And when Russell Baze passed Pincay, reaching 9,531 winners on Dec. 1, 2006, Pincay was glad to be on hand - but just as glad he no longer needed to show up every day until it happened.

Shoemaker will always be the Babe Ruth of horse racing, the single most recognizeable name the game has ever known. Pincay, in the role of Aaron, was every bit Shoemaker's equal in terms of the respect bestowed by fans and competitors. Although unlike Aaron, who was besieged with bigoted threats during his record run in 1974, Pincay was welcomed as the natural successor to Shoemaker's reign.

Now comes the era of Baze and Bonds in their respective games. Both will be subjected to asterisks, at least for the forseeable future, though for very different reasons.

Baze, an exemplary gentleman and respected horseman, should surpass the 10,000-winner mark soon, with no particular end in sight. He has put his life on the line in more than 43,000 races, and at the age of 49, he leads all North American riders in wins once again. But no matter how high Baze goes, his total will be qualified by the fact that he has competed primarily on a Northern California circuit that is judged to be a cut below the major leagues dominated by Shoemaker and Pincay. To his credit, Baze does not let that bother him at all.

Bonds, on the other hand, has burdened himself with the scandals surrounding his suspected use of illegal steroids to build and maintain a home run hitting body well into his 40s. As a baseball fan and former professional athlete, Pincay is not inclined to pass judgment before baseball or the legal system have finished with the case.

"Look, I was taking diet pills for a long time when I was younger," said Pincay, who eventually turned to a healthy nutritional routine for his weight control. "Those were drugs the doctors gave me, they were illegal, and everybody was taking them - even the jockeys who didn't have a weight problem!

"So I don't really think about it," Pincay added. "I was there at the game, excited that I might see him break the record. If he did something illegal it's wrong, and he should be punished. But he's still playing, not like he's been suspended or anything like that."

Since his final mount, on March 1, 2003, when he fractured several vertabrae in an accident at Santa Anita, Pincay has tried to maintain his fitness even though there are no more races to ride.

"I weigh about 128 pounds," said Pincay, who turned 60 last December. "And I feel great. Very energetic. I think my body looks better, more muscular, and I look younger for sure. Everybody tells me I look like I'm going back to riding. Go back to riding! I'd need to lose about 12 pounds, and I don't know where I could lose it because everything is muscle."

Everything, including the heart of an everlasting champion.