08/02/2005 11:00PM

This retiree knows how Day feels

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Pat Day has retired, freezing forever his glorious list of numbers and accomplishments, and the news has caused a considerable stir, as it should whenever a widely respected Hall of Famer such as Day hangs up his spikes.

Early Wednesday morning, though, word had not quite reached a quiet corner of suburban Arcadia, not far from Santa Anita, where Laffit Pincay was just beginning another summer's day in the hot San Gabriel Valley. By his own admission, Pincay is woefully uninformed when it comes to racing headlines, content as he is to keep the game at arm's length while he comes to emotional terms with the realities of his own retirement.

Pincay's reaction to Day's announcement brought surprise.

"No kidding?" Pincay said. "Wow! That hip really must have been bothering him. I don't really pay much attention. Was he getting a lot of mounts?"

The questions revealed the essence of Pincay, a man who won 9,530 races during a 39-year career - more than any other rider. To him, the only legitimate reasons to quit would be physical disability or an abject lack of business, with all options completely exhausted. Day, through friends and family, is not blaming his recent hip surgery for his retirement. Nor has Day ever been at a loss for good horses. His dedication to a new career as a Christian minister is plainly an inspiration, and it is hard to fault a fellow for calling it a career after 32 years of competition, 8,803 winners, and nearly $300 million in earnings by his mounts.

Day has often pointed out that his success was in large part tied to his lack of serious injuries. He underwent rotator cuff surgery at the end of 2003, but before that the most time he ever missed was two months, in 1986 following the death of his father. Day noted last spring that rehabilitation from his hip surgery posed a difficult challenge, and the oft-injured Pincay is not one to minimize the psychological impact.

"Sometimes, when a guy goes through his career without any serious type of injury, or something like Pat just went through now, they don't have any idea what their reaction might be," Pincay said. "All of a sudden they have to face something different, and they probably say, 'To hell with this.'

"I went through so many things when I was riding that I put up with it, because I loved riding," Pincay said. "I figured that if I rested, it would be no good, so I kept going. If I broke my collarbone I would be out only three or four weeks and back before they said I would be. I put up with the pain. Pat's had it easier through most of his career, and now he's got to face the pain."

Pincay finally had to face his own mortality in 2003, at age 56, when a fall at Santa Anita resulted in a neck condition that his doctors insisted would not survive another crash. He continues to chafe at inactivity, but he predicts that Day will have a more serene transition into retirement.

"It sounds like he is making his own choice," Pincay said.

Pincay's insights are valid, just as some of his high stakes encounters with Day through the years have been epic. Between the two men, they wrote several memorable chapters in Breeders' Cup history, including Pincay's upset of Day and Easy Goer aboard Is It True in the 1988 Juvenile and Day's remarkable front-running shocker with Wild Again in the 1984 Classic, when Pincay and the erratic Gate Dancer were beaten a head in second.

Pincay's admiration for his rival goes back to the late 1970's, when Day was competing in Southern California. According to Pincay, Day had all the tools to be a star.

"He was a really good rider," Pincay said. "He had the right size. He reminded me a lot of Bill Shoemaker. But he was one of those riders you see that you say, 'Damn, why doesn't this guy do better?'"

Day is the first to concede that the problem was substance abuse.

"He was struggling," Pincay said. "Doing drugs. He didn't have a very good life at the time. I'll tell you, some guys can do it, and some guys can't. I know that, because I went through some tough times, too. I never got as far as Pat, but when I went out and celebrated, or I drank, I paid dearly the next day. I had to reduce more than other days, and that would kill me.

"But you cannot get it in your head that it will catch up with you," he said. "You might not think it is bothering you - but it's bothering you very much. You don't think so, and you can't even feel it. And the more you tell a guy, the more they don't listen. Some guys think, just because they drink some wine it doesn't bother them. When I quit drinking, I was only having a couple drinks a week. I felt so much better it wasn't funny."

Day says he reached his personal road to Damascus in 1983, after which he gave himself over to a committed life of Christian faith and sobriety. The line of demarcation between the two parts of Day's career is astounding - and absolutely no coincidence, as far as Pincay is concerned.

"When you are drinking and partying every night, everything is cloudy; your mind works differently," Pincay said. "After you quit, you go out there and you become creative. You want to do special things with horses and really get into the rhythm of riding and competing. Suddenly you can see things that were right in front of you before, how things develop in a race. You can anticipate, where before you didn't.

"When Pat stopped the things he was doing, he became different," Pincay said. "He became a great rider, just fantastic. One of the greatest riders you'll ever see."

And now, at age 51, the riding has come to an end.

"He's only 51?" Pincay exclaimed. "No, I don't think so. Hell, I just started doing good when I turned 50."