12/26/2002 1:00AM

Still hungry after all these years

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In 1965, when Palmer, Player, and Nicklaus ruled the game of golf, Sam Snead was still swinging with enough buttery grace to win his 81st professional tournament in Greensboro, N.C. He was 52 at the time.

In 1991, driving against kids less than half his age, A.J. Foyt qualified second fastest with a speed of 222 m.p.h. and started in the middle of the front row of the Indianapolis 500, a race he had already won five times. He was 56.

These miracles of American sport are always good for an inspirational rush. They remind us that timekeeping imposes artificial boundaries, and that birthdays are best when not taken seriously at all.

Still, it is worth pausing for a moment this Sunday, when Laffit Pincay Jr. will suit up to ride on the 56th anniversary of his birth in Panama City, Panama, on Dec. 29, 1946.

If Pincay were only hanging around for a couple of rides a day and an occasional stakes mount, that would be fine. If he only showed up on weekends to sign a few autographs and compete at his leisure, that would be okay, too.

But that would not be the Laffit Pincay that fans have grown to worship. The Laffit Pincay they know remains ferociously competitive, dedicated to his craft, and hungry in ways that go far beyond the three square meals a day he never gets to eat. In the paddock gardens of Santa Anita, there are statues of such riding icons as Bill Shoemaker, John Longden, and George Woolf. But only the bronze of Pincay can be considered based on a work in progress.

On Thursday morning, the man himself was gearing up for his 37th Santa Anita season. His goals were simple. Four months and 85 racing days later, he fully expected to be crowned Santa Anita's leading rider for the 15th time.

"That first day, you always go into it with a lot of expectations," Pincay said. "It's a very important day in your mind. It's special, and very exciting."

Pincay's view in the jockeys' room is very different than it was on opening day a year ago. Neither Chris McCarron nor Eddie Delahoussaye are hanging out in their corner on the north wall. And the cubicle occupied by Gary Stevens, just a few stalls down from Pincay, remains empty as well. With McCarron retired, Delahoussaye still on the mend from the concussion suffered last August, and Stevens working on "Seabiscuit," Pincay finds himself strangely without the comfort of familiar veterans.

"I miss seeing those guys around every day," Pincay said. "But believe me, even without them it doesn't get any easier. Good ones leave and good ones come back, and that makes it always tough.

"There are guys out here who don't win many races, and they are very good riders," Pincay went on. "It's just a very tough circuit here. But it's tough everywhere. If you go up north, Russell Baze rides most of the best horses, and the guys sitting second or third to him ride the rest of the good ones. Wherever you go, you've still got to break in."

And what does it take to break through?

"Win," Pincay said. "Just find a way to win."

With 9,479 victories going into opening day, Pincay finds ways to win any place he rides, even on a busman's holiday. He mixed business with ceremonial pleasure on Dec. 21 at Calder Race Course in Miami as the star of Laffit Pincay Day, winning with one of his three mounts and bringing home an armful of plaques and proclamations for his overstocked shelves. For the presentations, Pincay donned the silks of his first American patron, Fred W. Hooper.

"He never rode here regularly," said Michele Blanco, Calder's director of media relations, "and because he has only come for a few stakes races through the years, I think there was an urgency among his fans here to come and see him. The line for him to sign autographs stretched from the sixteenth pole to past the finish line."

Pincay cites consistency as his greatest strength. He has no new dietary secrets. What he has done nutritionally the last five years he will continue into 2003.

"Believe me, it has nothing to do with winning or losing," Pincay said. "It's all about how I feel. And right now I feel very good."

His workout routine has not changed, and just because he now lives within a few furlongs of the Santa Anita backstretch, in a new home in an exclusive corner of Arcadia, that does not mean he will become a regular at morning workouts. More likely, Pincay will be spotted cruising Baldwin Avenue on his sleek new blade scooter, a gift from his wife, Jeanine.

"My son had two, and I was using one of his," Pincay said. "The one she got me, though, it has a motor."

As if he needs one.