10/12/2005 11:00PM

Pincay was mighty at Oak Tree

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It's never a bad idea to salute Laffit Pincay, anytime, anywhere. Besides, it gets him out of the house.

The Oak Tree Racing Association takes its turn on Saturday, and appropriately so, since Pincay is the all-time leading Oak Tree rider and figures to retain that honor for the foreseeable future.

In fact, the California chapter of Pincay's storybook career roughly coincides with the history of Oak Tree, which came into existence in 1969 to fill a gaping hole in the autumn dates of the racing calendar. Pincay made his Southern California debut at Santa Anita during the winter of 1968.

And even though Oak Tree offers only a short, boutique meet that has never run longer than 32 days, Pincay's impact remains statistically significant. He has won the Oak Tree title six times - which includes a run of three straight after he turned 53 - while his grand total of 671 Oak Tree winners is more than 250 clear of his closest active pursuer, Patrick Valenzuela.

Pincay never really got to say goodbye to his fans during the Oak Tree season. When he concluded business at the end of the 2002 meet, beating Valenzuela 27 wins to 25, he fully intended to pick up where he left off in the fall of 2003.

Bad luck intervened, though, on the afternoon of March 1, 2003, when he went down hard crossing the dirt in a hillside turf sprint during the main Santa Anita meet. Pincay suffered multiple fractures of the second cervical vertebra at the base of his neck and a compression fracture of the seventh thoracic vertebra, between his shoulder blades. When his doctors told him his next fall would be his last, Pincay reluctantly retired.

(Note from the legal desk: Pincay has filed a negligence suit against Santa Anita Park, the ambulance company, and some of the medical personnel involved in his emergency treatment at the track that day. The Oak Tree Racing Association, which leases Santa Anita for the meet, is not involved. According to Pincay's attorney, Neil Papiano, there is a trial date set for next February, but motions for a continuance by the defendants could push that back.)

In the meantime, Saturday will be a day to savor Pincay's sweetest Oak Tree moments. There will be an opportunity for a Pincay autograph, video highlights, and a chance to recall some of his best Oak Tree afternoons. They include:

* The 1981 Autumn Days (1st division) with Kilijaro - Pincay was able to tame the wild beast in this ferocious French mare, who could win short or long, dirt or turf. On this particular Oak Tree opening day, Kilijaro became the last female in California to carry as much as 130 pounds to victory.

* The 1974 Oak Tree Invitational with Tallahto - Another goofy mare, this one needed sponge earplugs and earmuffs just to make it through the saddling paddock and post parade without a meltdown. Pincay had the key, and they beat the boys at 1 1/2 miles.

* The 2002 California Cup Classic with Calkins Road - Every step of the stretch, it looked as if Continental Red was going to win the day's biggest prize. Then, as the wire approached, Pincay went into one of his power drives. The margin was a head, at odds of 10-1, and no one was prepared to argue that Pincay did not make the difference.

* The 1980 Oak Tree Invitational with John Henry - This was the first of John Henry's three straight wins in Oak Tree's signature race. It also clinched the first of his record four Eclipse Awards as champion grass horse. Pincay enjoyed riding Ol' John because they both needed to win to be happy.

* The 1982 Oak Leaf with Landaluce - No one knew it would be her last race, but it was. Pincay prefers to remember Landaluce like this, winning her fourth race without a defeat. A month later she was dead from a viral infection.

* The 1993 Oak Leaf with Phone Chatter - Of all the great fillies and mares Pincay has ridden - including Desert Vixen, Susan's Girl, Bayakoa, and Typecast - Pincay thought Phone Chatter had the potential to rank with the best. Injuries kept her from fulfilling the promise of races like the Oak Leaf, in which she beat the stubborn Sardula by a half-length.

* The 1993 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies with Phone Chatter - It was the Oak Leaf all over again, except with more money, pressure, and prestige, as well as a global audience. Pincay gave a clinic in the use of the left-handed whip to edge Sardula and Eddie Delahoussaye by a head.

* The 2000 California Cup - Lots of jockeys win five races in a day. Pincay raised the bar by winning five races on the Cal Cup program, including the Classic with Sky Jack, the Mile with Road to Slew, and the Distaff with Chichim, which also marked career win No. 9,000.

* The 1986 Breeders' Cup Classic with Skywalker - Pincay's lone win in America's richest race was a work of art that will be studied by young riders for years to come. Skywalker was the third best horse in the race, but Pincay was the equalizer, trapping Precisionist early, sprinting to an insurmountable lead, and beating back the late-closing Turkoman. "I was very proud of my ride that day," Pincay has said, on more than one occasion. He has a right.