09/20/2006 11:00PM

Pincay still doing super work


If the folks at Louisiana Downs had pulled the plug on the Super Derby after the Vth running, back in 1984, instead of making it all the way to this Saturday's XXVIIth, they would have been obliged to backdate a name change and just call the darn thing Pincayapalooza.

Three of those first five Super D's belonged to the incomparable Laffit Pincay Jr., who rode such diverse animals as Island Whirl, Sunny's Halo, and Gate Dancer to victory in the $500,000 event. And in case anyone thinks those long-ago events were cheaply won, let the record show that Island Whirl defeated Belmont winner Summing and Travers winner Willow Hour, that Sunny's Halo beat Travers winner Play Fellow and Santa Anita Derby runner-up My Habitony, and that Gate Dancer took a ferocious decision from future Hall of Famer Precisionist.

The Super Derby is only one of any number of major stakes that Pincay collected in bunches during a 39-year career that ended the day he went down crossing the dirt strip of the hillside turf course at Santa Anita Park. That was March 1, 2003, and while his neck and back hurt for a good long while, the pain of a forced ending to the only life he had known will never really go away.

Now just three months shy of his 60th birthday, Pincay is keeping just busy enough. There was a Pincay sighting last month at a legislative hearing in Sacramento, where he pled racing's case in the face of Indian casino competition and called for a jockey retirement plan. There was the announcement that Pincay would co-host the White Horse Heroes luncheon during Breeders' Cup week in Louisville, Ky. Pincay even was caught slumming in the L.A. Dodgers clubhouse before a game last weekend, which is about as close as any of those guys will ever get to a hall of fame.

Through all of this, Pincay also is adjusting to life as a single man once again, now that he and his wife, Jeanine, have separated and begun divorce proceedings. Their 12-year-old son, Jean-Laffitte, currently lives with his mother.

"I don't get to see him as much right now because he's back to school," Pincay said. "But we have both talked to him a lot about things, and I think he'll be okay. He's a very smart boy."

Pincay admits to going through the stress and sadness triggered by the end of a marriage - in this case after 14 years - but he says nothing compares with the terror of testifying in front of a panel of state legislators. He described the experience as "nerve-wracking."

"Even when I was riding the biggest races, I never got the butterflies or got so nervous," Pincay said Thursday from his home near Santa Anita. "I've been that way forever. I remember one time in school the teacher called on us to say something in front of the class. There was no warning. I wasn't prepared. I just stood there. Maybe that's where it started - the fear that I'd get stuck and not know what to say."

For a good cause, though, like the welfare of fellow jockeys both active and retired, Pincay will face the stage fright. He was accompanied to the Sacramento hearings by Dwight Manley, the former sports agent and recently hired Jockeys' Guild national manager.

"Every time the guild needs me, I'll try to help in whatever way I can," Pincay said. "There are a lot of jockeys who need the guild - they are disabled, they need health care. That's why I'll always be a member."

Both the guild and horse racing in general badly need a figure of Pincay's stature to be front and center, representing the best that the sport can offer. Unfortunately, to this point racetracks and racing organizations have failed to capitalize on Pincay's sterling reputation.

Ironically, Pincay is destined to be tapped for a floodtide of interviews very soon, as Russell Baze moves ever closer to Pincay's record 9,530 victories. Through Wednesdays racing, Baze had reached 9,417. For those keeping score, that means he could grab the mark in a matter of months, but Pincay is not among them.

"Believe me, I don't even think about that," Pincay said. "I know he's going to pass me like nothing and go on to win 10,000 races. I don't read the papers. I don't watch the races on television. I only know how he's doing when someone tells me, like when he won seven races in one day."

In fact, Baze won nine straight races - including seven in one day - over a two-day period in August at the Bay Meadows Fair. Resigned to losing the record, Pincay still can cling to such memories as his nine Hollywood Gold Cups, his five Santa Anita Handicaps, his three Belmonts, and, of course, those Super Derbies. His favorite came aboard Gate Dancer.

"We beat Shoemaker and Precisionist by a head, and if we hadn't won, Shoemaker would have come down," Pincay recalled. "He was hitting my horse across the chest for the last sixteenth of a mile. Not long after that, I flew somewhere to be at a roast for Shoemaker. When I got up, I said that they only gave him 15 days for that ride - but he should have got life! He just laughed."