05/01/2003 12:00AM

Pincay: From Panama to the pinnacle

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Over the last several weeks, Laffit Pincay Jr. dropped hints to friends that he might be ready to retire. Trainer Bill Spawr, with whom Pincay has been close over the past decade, visited him earlier this month. "He said, 'Those three little [bones] are going to have to heal really, really well, or my family won't let me ride,'" Spawr said. "At the time, my gut feeling was he was going to retire."

Still, it was something of a surprise Tuesday afternoon when Pincay, the career leader in victories with 9,530, made it official in a statement issued by Hollywood Park.

His decision came less than two months after he sustained fractures to his vertebra and spine in a spill at Santa Anita. On Monday, doctors removed the halo device that he had worn to stabilize his head and neck. Pincay, 56, had planned on delaying a decision about his career until after rehabilitation, but he changed his mind after receiving medical advice on Monday that his injuries had left a weakness that would render him vulnerable to severe spinal injury if he fell again.

"He would very much have liked to ride again," said his friend and attorney, Neil Papiano. "He wants to ride again. He was planning to. But he was told it would be too dangerous. I think the injury now is so severe that he is not going to change his mind."

Pincay was injured in a downhill turf sprint, the fifth race at Santa Anita on March 1. His mount, Trampus Too, clipped the heels of Rainman's Request, ridden by Tony Farina, who had drifted into Pincay's path. Trampus Too fell, and subsequently rolled over Pincay. Despite the ugly nature of the spill, initial reports suggested Pincay was not seriously injured.

When pain in his neck persisted, Pincay was re-examined and found to have sustained three fractures to his second cervical vertebrae and a compression fracture to his second thoracic vertebrae, in mid-spine. His friends and family urged Pincay to retire, but he decided to delay the decision. Farina, the jockey who caused the spill, received a seven-day suspension. Farina is scheduled to ride Brancusi in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Pincay did not return a phone call on Tuesday but expressed his emotions in the statement released by Hollywood Park.

"It's definitely a sad day for me," Pincay said. "The doctor recommended I never ride again. It's a very sad day for me and [his wife] Jeanine, but we always prepared ourselves for the worst. I'm very grateful to a lot of people who helped me throughout my career and I thank the fans for all their cards and well wishes and my friends for all their support."

Pincay lost his first wife, Linda, in a sucide in 1985. Pincay has three children: Lisa and Laffit III with Linda and Jean-Laffit with Jeanine.

Pincay's decision follows by only months the retirements of Chris McCarron and Eddie Delahoussaye, signaling a changing of the guard in the Southern California jockey colony. Pincay was a mainstay on the circuit and a sentimental favorite among fans. He passed Bill Shoemaker as racing's all-time win leader Dec. 10, 1999, when he rode No. 8,834th on Irish Nip at Hollywood. He won at least 200 races each of the next three years. At the time of his injury, Pincay was still a force. He was second on the Santa Anita jockey standings with 52 victories, and his 21 percent win rate was highest at the time of his injury.

Pincay was the oldest and most respected jockey in the colony. "He was always down and riding, no matter what," Spawr said. "Some guys won't ride because the horse is too cheap, but not Laffit. All he wanted to do was ride. He's sure going to be missed."

With Pincay, McCarron, and Delahoussaye retired, and Hall of Fame rider Julie Krone mending from injuries, the colony is relatively shallow. "Somebody's going to have to step up and be a leader," said his agent, Bob Meldahl. "Nobody's going to fill his shoes, but somebody's going to have help the smaller guys."

Russell Baze, who rides in northern California, and Pat Day, whose home base is Churchill Downs, are the active riders closest to Pincay's 9,530 wins. Baze, 44, averages more than 400 wins a year, and entered the week with 8,223. Day, 49, entered the week with 8,455, but typically rides fewer horses and winners than Baze.

Pincay was born in Panama City, Panama, on Dec. 29, 1946, and rode 446 winners at Presidente Remon in Panama and one in Venezuela before moving to the United States to work for owner Fred W. Hooper in 1966. He won on his first U.S. mount, Teacher's Art, on July 1, 1966, at Arlington Park and never looked back. Pincay won 44 riding titles, including 41 in Southern California.

His mounts earned $237,417,045 and he rode in 48,487 races.

He won only one Kentucky Derby, with Swale in 1984, but won three Belmonts and six Breeders' Cup races. He won five Eclipse Awards as the nation's outstanding jockey and a sixth in 1999 for "singular achievement" in surpassing Shoemaker.

* May 19, 1964: Pincay wins his first race aboard Huelen, his second career mount, at Presidente Remon in Panama

* July 1, 1966: Wins with Teacher's Art, his first mount in the United States

* Jan. 26, 1972: Honored with Eclipse Award as 1971's champion jockey. He would go on to win five more Eclipses, including a Special Award in 1999

* Aug. 5, 1975: Inducted into Racing Hall of Fame at age 29

* Feb. 4, 1979: Wins the Strub with Triple Crown winner Affirmed, who won the last seven starts of his career with Pincay aboard

* May 5, 1984: Wins his first and only Kentucky Derby with Swale for trainer Woody Stephens

* June 9, 1984: Wins the Belmont on Swale, the last of three straight Belmont winners he rode for Stephens

* Nov. 1, 1986: Wins Breeders' Cup Classic with longshot Skywalker, the first of six Breeders' Cup winners

* March 14, 1987: Wins Santa Anita-record seven races, including six in a row

* Dec. 10, 1999: Wins the sixth race at Hollywood with Irish Nip, the 8,834th of his career, breaking Bill Shoemaker's record

* Nov. 6, 2000: At 53, leads the jockey standings at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet, his first riding title in 15 years

* March 1, 2003: Wins the second at Santa Anita aboard Seattle Shamus, the 9,530th victory of his career. In the fifth race, he goes down in a spill while riding Trampus Too, breaking his neck

* April 29, 2003: Announces retirement from riding