12/31/2003 1:00AM

Pincay's search for a second act


ARCADIA, Calif. - It has been 10 months now since Laffit Pincay pulled on white pants and let fly with one of his ferocious, take-no-prisoners rides. Ten months since fans had to deal with the thorny challenge of betting against a horse equipped with Pincay power. Ten months since the classiest act in the game plied his dangerous trade, defying time and inspiring awe.

It's been a long 10 months.

For his part, Pincay has spent the last 10 months trying to heal. The head-first fall he took at Santa Anita on March 1, 2003, fractured a vertebra in his neck and another in his back. The neck trauma scared everybody silly, and rightfully so, but it has been the mid-back damage that has lingered longest, as muscle spasms continue to signal Pincay that repairs are still in progress.

Pincay celebrated his 57th birthday last Monday, a day that under normal circumstances he would have spent riding the card at Santa Anita Park. Instead, Pincay and his wife, Jeanine, drove to Vegas with friends, checked into the Mandalay Bay, went to dinner at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, played the slots, and caught David Copperfield at the MGM Grand. Retirement, even when forced by injury, has its pleasant diversions.

"It's funny, because I haven't been riding for a long time, and when I was in Las Vegas a lot of people recognized me," Pincay said from his Arcadia home on New Year's Eve. "They came up to me and said they missed me. They asked if I was ever coming back to riding. I said, 'no, no, no.' But it made me feel good that they would ask."

If they knew, they wouldn't ask. Pincay's neck injury effectively eliminates any thought of a comeback. His next accident could be his last.

"I don't do anything dangerous, like skiing," Pincay said. "Nothing where I could have a spill, because I could really get hurt. Bob Baffert gave my boy a power scooter for his birthday and I rode it a couple times, but I really shouldn't.

"My neck still gets stiff every once in awhile," he added. "But it's nothing that I can say really bothers me. For my back, I do exercises at home that I learned during my therapy. They help me tremendously, both stretching and strengthening, and they help me come out of the pain. But it's going to take time."

Pincay's routine these days begins with exercise and includes plenty of time with Jeanine, his son Jean-Laffitt, and his 2-year-old chihuahua, Lola. He has gained an undetectable 10 pounds and grew a cool Van Dyke beard and moustache, giving him the inscrutable look of a Panamanian spy.

"I keep myself in really good shape," Pincay said. "I keep my weight down - not as much as before - but I still keep to the regimen of my diet. Doing that, in some strange way I still feel like I'm in the game, and I feel good about it. I still look like a jockey, I guess. People ask me why I'm still on a diet. I tell them I want to stay young looking, because I have a young wife."

The Pincays catch a lot of movies (Laffit gives a big thumbs up to "The Last Samurai"), including a dutiful pilgrimage to "Seabiscuit." Not surprisingly, Pincay had his own perspective on the story.

"I didn't know anything about Red Pollard, the jockey," Pincay said. "When I first picked up the book, there was his picture on the horse in the winner's circle. I thought, that jockey doesn't look too happy, even after he's just won the Santa Anita Handicap.

"After I saw the movie, I know why he looked like that. The guy didn't eat anything! The poor guy, he was probably so weak he couldn't enjoy it. Believe me, that happens. It reminded me of how I once felt, being so tired coming back to the winner's circle. I know there are pictures of me when I didn't even smile."

Faced with a sudden abundance of idle time, Pincay is not sure about the second chapter in his life. For a long time, it was hard for him to even watch a race on TV. Even now, he keeps his racing world appearances to a minimum. He was at Hollywood Park for a fundraiser last summer. He spoke at Bill Shoemaker's memorial service in the fall, and in November, he attended the annual meeting of the Jockeys' Guild in Dallas.

"I realize now that I'm out," Pincay said. "Instead of thinking about being in the race, I just try to enjoy the race and root for certain jockeys and certain trainers to win. But even so, when I see the races, with all the short fields, it's so much easier to win now it's not even funny.

"I guess that's why I don't really wish to do any work right now. My thing was riding. I can't do that anymore, but that doesn't mean I want to do something else. Maybe something else will come along. Maybe if I think about it hard enough. But not right now."