Pincay believes the addition of fruit to his diet several years ago—"I was watching TV," he recalls, "and saw this old lady, 70 years old, with this big basket of fruit, and she was very skinny, but very lively"—is what has saved his career. Until the revelation provided by that infomercial, Pincay swerved from one outlandish program to another, often doing himself more harm than good (collapsing somewhat famously at Aqueduct, his body severely depleted of salt). Sometimes he would fast, sometimes eat only a vegetable, sometimes only a salad, all of it topped with diet pills and so many visits to a sweatbox that he bought one of his own. He had it installed in front of the TV, where, his disembodied head jutting out of it spookily, he barked answers back at the quiz-show hosts.
"But my dumbest diet, even though I did best on it, was my all-nuts diet," he says. For two years all he ate was nuts with dry cereal. As it happened, he had his greatest seasons on nuts (Laffit Pecan?), winning celebrated races on Affirmed in 1979 during one of those years. What's more, the diet provided one of the alltime plane-food anecdotes. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas was flying with Pincay and noticed him take a peanut from the airline snack, cut it in half, eat the first portion and save the second for later in the flight. "That might have happened," Pincay says, laughing. "People were always surprised by my eating, like when I'd scrape the salt off a cracker."
More recently, before heading to a San Diego Padres game to throw out the first pitch, he tucked a piece of rye bread in a plastic bag. When everyone else in the luxury box he watched the game from chowed down on pasta, Pincay had his bread and a chicken breast. He abandoned dried legumes when he noticed that he could not stay awake during the day. "Socially I wasn't much fun," he says. "I had no life."
So it was on to the next crazy regimen, then the one after that. A young man might survive these repeated attacks on his metabolism, but an older gent begins to suffer for them. As Pincay edged toward 50, the toll became more vicious. He had no energy. "There's a difference between tired and weak," he says. "It got so I would pin all my hopes on my first ride. Because if I won that, I'd have enough adrenaline to make it through the program. If I didn't, it would be a long day."
Although Pincay says his riding must have declined, other jockeys didn't notice. "He was the same rider he'd always been," says Delahoussaye. One thing, however, did not escape notice: In December 1996 he turned 50. "They had a 50th birthday celebration for him," remembers Stevens. "Just what a guy needs." Stevens believes that sent a small shock through the barns and led to a drop in Pincay's bookings.
The next year was the worst of his career—718 mounts (compared with 1,270 in '95) and a miserable 75 wins (his career winning percentage is 19). Pincay had bounced back from tragedy, notably his wife's suicide in 1985, but he recognized that this might not be survivable. "I was discouraged," he says, admitting he thought about heading to less competitive circuits to the north. "I was getting one or two horses a day, and none of them had a chance."
There are jockeys who idolize Pincay. Asked about Pincay, Kent Desormeaux wrote A MAN'S MAN, A LEGEND IN OUR OWN TIME, AN IRON MAN, A MAN OF INTEGRITY on a piece of yellow paper and turned it in as his interview. They admire him not necessarily for the way he wins but for the way he loses. "All that time," jockey Mike Smith says of Pincay's struggles in the late '90s, "he never made one peep. All you hear from most jockeys, all day long, is, 'Why am I on this stupid horse.' Laffit just rides."
Pincay did have one thing going for him besides a new diet. As he ground toward Shoemaker's career victory record, trainers decided it might not hurt to be included in the pursuit. He began to get better horses and won more races, and his age became increasingly irrelevant. After he got the record in December 1999—"I didn't like to see it broken," Shoemaker says, "but it couldn't have been broken by a better guy"—nearly everyone expected Pincay to slip into the twilight. He didn't. After winning 170 races in 1999, he won 202 last year. With 10 days to go at Del Mar, Pincay had 162 victories this year, and fellow jockeys are predicting an eventual 10,000 for him, easy.
There is no logical explanation for any of it, even given Pincay's love of riding. The sport is too dangerous, too demanding. This is not a game in which you string out a career, coming up to pinch-hit every now and then so fans can accord you a standing O. This is serious business, and to do it successfully at 54 suggests an almost pathological insatiability, the kind of hunger calories can't begin to satisfy. Poor Pincay, ever famished, coming down the stretch, all 116 pounds of him, 100% appetite.