04/30/2003 11:00PM

We'll never see another like Pincay


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A year ago he was in the "Sports Illustrated" swimsuit edition, posing and grinning alongside his bikinied wife, Jeanine.

Four months ago, he was battling hard for another title, this time at the Hollywood Park autumn meet against such youngsters as Victor Espinoza and Alex Solis.

Two months ago, as the month of March dawned, he was cruising near the top of the Santa Anita standings, poised to win still another title if one of the kids stumbled. There was even a potential Derby horse on the horizon.

Now this. Now it is over, just like that. All it took was one cold-blooded consultation and a dose of sober reality that delivered a simple message: He could ride, fine, but if he did and something happened, he might never walk again.

Just like that, nothing in Thoroughbred horse racing will ever be the same. Oh, sure, there will be a Kentucky Derby winner this year, and next. Good horses and talented young riders will come and go, leaving marks of varying degree. There is even talk, from time to time, that one kid or another looks like he just might be the next Laffit Pincay.

Good luck.

In order to be the next Pincay, a jockey must be prepared to cram the body of a natural 140-pound athlete into a 115-pound package and then be willing to keep it that way, day-in and day-out, for nearly 40 years. As articulated in "Downhill Racer," one of the best sports movies of all time, the discipline is called "sacrifice without end."

After that, it is only a matter of competing at the very highest levels of the sport, with no minor leagues, no spring training, no off seasons, and no teammates to help carry the load. There is only you, and if you are Laffit Pincay, your standards are so high that nothing really satisfies you short of a three-winner day or a six-figure stakes. And then do it every day of your adult life.

It would be easy to gauge the longevity of Pincay's career based on such facile comparisons as Presidential administrations (there have been eight), technological advancements (portable phones, Muppets, crack cocaine), or musical trends ("Do the hustle!").

Consider for a moment, however, the host of great riders who both began and ended their careers while Pincay was still riding, jocks who had to deal with Laffit first as rookies, fresh in the door, and then as veterans, wise to his remarkable ways. Sandy Hawley came and went. So did Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, and Steve Cauthen, as well as Cash Asmussen, Darrell McHargue, and Randy Romero, all of them forced to give Pincay the same farewell:

"We don't know how you do it, but when you're finished, please turn out the lights."

Quick - all those 56-year-olds in the room who can maintain a rider's crouch for 1 1/4 miles at speeds of 35 miles per hour, who can do all that and switch sticks at the eighth pole in the blink of an eye please raise your hands.

In the end, most of us can only stand back and admire Pincay's career from afar. The 48,487 mounts, the 9,530 winners, the six Eclipse Awards, the 44 titles at headline meets.

Only a peer can truly understand a pro like Pincay, and there are precious few in his realm. Sustained excellence over a great span of time is a rare commodity. One of those pros has been Pincay's friend since he first made the California scene in the late 1960's.

"I talked to him about a week after his injury," said Burt Bacharach, easily the Laffit Pincay of popular music. "I think it was the longest phone conversation we ever had. I mean, we had been through a lot of times together, both good and bad, and now this. He rode my first winner, Battle Royal, 30 years ago. He rode my champion, Heartlight No. One. When we talked, he was hopeful that he could come back. But he was also facing the possibility of a huge life change. I wonder what he's going to do now?"

If a good pal like Bacharach is in the dark, the rest of us can only guess. And, face it, Pincay is to blame. He did not prepare us for the end. He was riding like a dream right up to the moment he went down and broke his neck at Santa Anita on that awful March 1. If he had lost a step, it wasn't apparent. Pincay at 90 percent could still lead the pack.

And even if he was 56 (actually 28 in Pincay years), there was no speculation about a second career, no farewell tour, and no valedictory season of token appearances. He has no public hobbies, no parallel lives. He is a private celebrity- if there is such a thing - whose world is complete with his wife, his mother, his kids, his granddaughter, his Porsche, and his crossword puzzles.

And now his retirement.

There are monuments to Laffit Pincay's career tucked away in every corner of the racing landscape. A statue at Presidente Remon in Panama, a bronze bust in the Santa Anita paddock, a plaque in the Hall of Fame. Pick a big race and there is probably a Pincay memory attached, from the Longacres Mile to the Breeders' Cup Classic and everything in between.

Even the Kentucky Derby is lucky enough to share a piece of the Pincay story. He won it in 1984, with Swale, after failing with horses like Sham, Judger, General Assembly, and Caveat. Without Pincay's name, the Derby would be less of a race. Thankfully, his words and image are preserved forever in the Kentucky Derby Museum, in the oval theater at the heart of the building, where he can be heard to describe his prayers on the big day 29 years ago, and how he was reluctant to ask outright for victory in the world's most precious race.

Instead, Pincay prayed for only "a push," just a little nudge, and nothing more. He could take it from there.

And he did.