05/09/2007 12:00AM

Pincay remains racing royalty


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The crowd at Churchill Downs was going wild. Obviously, they had never seen royalty up close before. Brandishing cameras, shouting out the regal name, they begged for a smile, a wave, the least little opportunity to bask in the glow of such a majestic presence.

"Laffit! Laffit! Please, Laffit! Over here - just one picture. Please!"

With a shy grin and an apologetic shrug, the most famous living Thoroughbred jockey detached himself from a small group of friends at the center of the Churchill Downs paddock and walked to the edge of the ring. There he stood, smiling and waving at his clamoring fans until the parading horses began to obscure their view.

For Laffit Pincay, such receptions are par for the course. He is that transcendant kind of superstar, eternally unimpressed with the effect he creates and yet respectful of those who treasure even the briefest encounter. Word whirled around the track the other day that Pincay would at some point meet Queen Elizabeth II. It did not happen - her loss - but the prospect certainly raised a sticky point of protocol. Who bows first when a king meets a queen?

Pincay has been a Derby regular for the last several years, ever since he recovered sufficiently from neck and back injuries suffered in a March 2003 accident at Santa Anita that effectively ended his career. Those injuries were back in the news this week when a Los Angeles jury found in Pincay's favor in his lawsuit against the ambulance company that transported him from the racetrack to emergency first aid on that fateful afternoon. Pincay was awarded a $2.7 million judgment, although he noted that an appeal was always a possibility.

As for his Derby trip, Pincay returned home with nothing but praise for the performance of Street Sense and his jockey, Calvin Borel.

"A good horse, and a great ride," Pincay said. "A very confident ride. To take ahold like he did right at the start, and for the horse to come from that far back, moving between horses, and still finish like he did. Unbelievable. I really think they could win the Triple Crown together."

Just to keep things in perspective, Laffit Pincay and Calvin Borel now have won the same number of Kentucky Derbies. Without hesitation, Pincay names his victory on Swale in 1984 as the most significant moment of his career.

"I felt the same way as he did," Pincay said of the effervescent Borel. "I just didn't show it quite as much."

Historians need look no further than the Pincay record to comprehend just how hard it is to win the Kentucky Derby. Between his first mount in 1971 and his last in 2002, Pincay rode in 22 runnings of America's most famous stampede. With any combination of luck or minor adjustment in competition, he might have won four or five.

Pincay did very little wrong aboard favored Unconscious in 1971, giving him a flawless Bo-rail ride before coming up empty in the stretch. At the same time, it's hard to hold the 1974 running against him. Faced with 23 in the gate, Pincay was lucky to return in one piece aboard stretch-running Judger, who never got a chance to run.

Given the choice, Pincay probably would like a do-over in 1975, when he lashed the moody Diabolo so hard at the eighth pole that he slid sideways into the charging Avatar. They both were beaten by Foolish Pleasure. And then there was the forgettable experience of 1980, when Pincay and the erratic Rumbo turned in the fastest final quarter in Derby history, only to fall a length short of catching Genuine Risk.

In retrospect, Pincay's three other second-place finishers are a little easier to swallow. Stephan's Odyssey was at a disadvantage from the start of the 1985 running behind Spend a Buck, who was long gone on an easy lead. In 1979, somebody had to be second to Spectacular Bid, so Pincay got the job done aboard General Assembly.

As for 1973, Pincay swears to this day that Sham believed he won the race, no matter what they wrote about Secretariat. It was eight lengths back to the horse who finished third.

"I guess I should feel very lucky that I was able to win the Derby even one time," Pincay said. "Look at all the guys who go through their careers without doing it."

Pincay was gratified by his reception at the Derby - "People still remember me," he said, as if they wouldn't - and it has been good news recently that Laffit is becoming more visible in the game.

This winter, Pincay signed on with a Santa Anita Park speaker's bureau. He is working with an author on a biography, and he continues to lend his support to a number of worthy causes, including the Pediatric Therapy Network, a Los Angeles-based center that aids upward of 1,200 children who have special needs.

Next Friday evening, May 18, Pincay will be hosting his annual "Win the Race for Our Kids" fund-raiser for the Pediatric Therapy Network at Hollywood Park. He has been doing it for five years, including 2003, when he was still in the early stages of recovery from his accident. He appeared in a neck brace, but he wore it like a crown.