06/08/2009 12:00AM

Riding the rail no cheap thrill

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To hear the hallelujahs over Calvin Borel's ride on Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby last month, a fellow would be led to believe it was the first time a jock ever busted through along the rail to get the job done in a big one.

"That was a great ride," said Laffit Pincay Jr., who was there that day. "An unbelievable ride. He stayed inside and came flying with that horse. I was very impressed."

It was a dramatic piece of work, a true exhibition of grace under fire upon horse racing's greatest stage, and Pincay's praise was a sincere appreciation for what Borel had done. The Derby was only the most recent example of the chances a rider will take when breathing such rarified air, and Pincay, if anyone, should know.

Just as Borel and Mine That Bird will try to add the Belmont to their Kentucky Derby win this Saturday, it was 25 years ago that Pincay ruled the Triple Crown scene aboard Swale. After winning the 1984 Kentucky Derby by 3 1/4 lengths, Swale came up empty in the Preakness. But he rebounded to win the Belmont by four in what turned out to be the third of Pincay's three straight victories in the race, beginning with Conquistador Cielo in 1982.

The '84 Belmont, Pincay admits, was a walk in the park. He could have won it strapped head down over the saddle.

"He won very easy," Pincay said this week, between promotional trips for his recently released autobiography. "He was able to make a nice pace, and by about the three-sixteenths pole the way he was running I knew no one was going to catch him."

This left Pincay about half a minute to pose, and he deserved the break, especially after the 1983 version, when Caveat won by a comparable 3 1/2 lengths. The margin, though, is where any similarity begins and ends. Swale won a tennis match. Caveat survived a riot.

The fun began on the final bend for home. Angel Cordero Jr. and Slew o' Gold were on the lead, just outside Au Point and Greg McCarron. Pincay was wedged in behind them with Caveat. Approaching the quarter pole, Pincay saw a hole between Au Point and the rail. A hole, by the way, that only Borel could love.

"When I went for the hole, there was a hole," Pincay said. "Then Cordero nudged him in, and closed it. But I already was there. I wasn't gonna take a hold of my horse."

Metaphysical questions aside ("When is a hole not a hole? And if you are in it, and it is closed, are you really there?"), Pincay found himself bounced repeatedly off the rail as Cordero held a hard line and McCarron tried desperately to cut Pincay some slack.

"Greg gave me a big break, trying to keep his horse from coming in more," Pincay said. "But we were brushing the rail and hitting the other horse. I'll tell you, in the film it doesn't look as bad as it did on top of the horse."

It never does. Pincay, Cordero - these are guys who spent most of their Hall of Fame careers on some kind of ledge, either diving into the breach, between boots and wood, or guarding the rail for dear life. The late Woody Stephens, who trained all three of Pincay's Belmont winners, was an ardent admirer.

"He rides as close to the rail as any rider riding," Stephens said. "I've seen the whitewash off the fence on his boot more than once. He rides where the going's tight."

Pincay is having a great time making the rounds with "Laffit Pincay - Anatomy of a Winner," written with Madelyn Cain. After book signings at both the Derby and the Preakness, Pincay will miss the Belmont this week to make an appearance on Saturday in the Turf Club satellite betting facility of the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds in Lancaster, Calif. This is a long way from Belmont Park, but for thrills, sometimes the space shuttle lands in nearby Palmdale.

Pincay's book is a more personal memoir than many expected from the stoic Panamanian. Now, at 62, he has loosened the tight hold on certain corners of his past, including graphic details of his struggle with reducing and the psychological toll it took on his family, especially his first wife, Linda, who committed suicide.

"There will be people come up to me and tell me they never knew what I was going through all that time," said Pincay, who was the all-time leader in wins when he was forced to retire in 2003 with spinal injuries.

Readers should not expect a chapter and verse detailing of Pincay's history on the track. Nor is it a primer on his powerful style of riding. For that, you just have to ask him. And so he was asked about riding the rail. How often does it work before something goes wrong?

"Well, sometimes you plan it, because staying inside is the only way I can win," Pincay began. "Sometimes it's the way the race shapes up, and sometimes the trainer tells you to stay inside. But a lot of times it's just an opportunity. You go inside because it's the best chance you've got at the moment.

"If you get in the habit of staying inside, and you do it with a lot of confidence, you're going to have a lot of success," Pincay added. "At Churchill Downs, Calvin is known for it, everyone is looking for it, and he still does it. But if I was riding against him I'd be watching out for him. And believe me, if Cordero was riding there, Calvin would not try to get through that many times and get away with it."