07/10/2003 11:00PM

A truly irreplaceable athlete

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The last time Laffit Pincay was seen wearing silks, on March 1 of this year, he was walking into the first aid station at Santa Anita Park holding his neck. He said it hurt.

Initial reports relayed around the track that day indicated Pincay would be okay. And he was, in the cosmic sense. Braced for dreadful news, Laffit fans were relieved to hear that their Rock of Gibraltar had risen from a heap on the dirt crossing of the downhill turf course to leave the field under his own steam. Give him a few days off and he would be fine.

Only, he wasn't. In fact, a vertebra in his neck had suffered multiple fractures. Another vertebra in his back was fractured as well. His recovery has turned out to be long and uncomfortable, and sometimes painful.

Finally, though, he is free of all neck supports. As of last Wednesday, his most recent visit to a doctor, he was given the green light to begin a more vigorous routine of exercise.

"He thinks that in two or three months, the injury might be okay," Pincay said Friday morning. "I usually heal very quick. But the neck I guess is different. It was just a very severe injury."

Never mind Pincay's neck. The racing game itself will take an eternity to recover from the loss of its most enduring star. The jockeys' room without Pincay has been a strange place, as if a support beam was suddenly removed. Other riders have taken up the slack of Pincay's prodigious work load - among Southern Californians, only Pat Valenzuela had more mounts than Pincay's 1,189 in 2002 - and yet fans have been left longing for the straightforward purity of the classic Pincay ride.

It was never more apparent than in the 2002 Hollywood Gold Cup, in which Pincay willed the ambitious miler Sky Jack to a narrow victory over Momentum at the end of 1 1/4 miles. Doug O'Neill, Sky Jack's trainer, still walks around in awe of what happened that day, courtesy of a jockey 21 years his senior.

It is perfectly fitting that the tribute to Laffit Pincay is being held on Sunday afternoon, on the day of the 64th running of the Hollywood Gold Cup. Pincay won nine Gold Cups, including the 1979 running with Affirmed and the 2001 edition with Aptitude, which fell in his lap after the disqualification of his pal Chris McCarron and Futural.

Pincay won his first Gold Cup in 1970 with Pleasure Seeker, doing a feathery 114 pounds in the process. His reaction today: "I did?"

Ancient Title, Crystal Water, and Affirmed followed in the 1970's, then came Perrault in 1982, Greinton in 1985, and Super Diamond in 1986. Pincay retains vivid memories of them all. Super Diamond, however, lingers with a twinge.

Pincay often played hurt while he rode. All jockeys do, primarily because they do not get paid if they do not ride. It is also a fact that the tolerance for pain goes up in proportion to the amount of the purse. The 1986 Gold Cup tested Pincay to the extreme.

"About two weeks before the Gold Cup I tore a lot of cartilage in my left ankle," Pincay said. "I was riding in a lot of pain, and there were even a couple of days I had to take off because I just couldn't stand the pain. I was afraid that the whole ankle was going to rip open."

Pincay consulted with Dr. Robert Kerlan, the famed orthopedic surgeon with the all-star sports clientele. The message was mixed.

"He told me that as long as I could take the pain, I could ride," Pincay recalled. "At least I knew then it wasn't going to be injured any worse."

Kerlan injected the ankle on the morning of the Gold Cup, which brought some relief. Still, Pincay had to cut his boot to get it over the angry joint. Eddie Gregson, Super Diamond's trainer, took one look at his jockey and winced.

"The way he limped into the paddock didn't give the owner a great feeling of confidence," Gregson said.

Super Diamond won by 1 1/2 lengths, with favored Precisionist third. Pincay, grateful he had survived the ordeal, decided against his customary victory wave of the whip.

"I was too tired," he said. "I was afraid I would fall off."

Now that Pincay is on the ground for keeps, unable to jump on a fast horse and ride away, he will become a sitting duck for the affections and everlasting gratitude of his fans, friends, and family. It is a shame that he was not able to retire on his own terms. But, given the worst case scenario of neck trauma, it is a blessing that he still stands tall. Sunday's tribute was going to happen sooner or later, so he might as well relax enjoy the fuss.

"It's going to be hard," Pincay said. "I have a lot of pressure on me. I have to speak. And it's hard to keep it short when I have so many people to thank."

Let him take all the time he wants, because the game will never see the likes of him again.