This doesn't seem to be a sport you'd play any longer than you absolutely had to. And play can't be the right word, anyway. Whenever an ambulance follows you in the routine performance of your duties, rolling along morbidly as you go about your business, you're probably more involved in reality programming than athletics. However, sitting on top of 1,100 pounds of unpredictability, you and your two-pound saddle whipping along at 40 mph, that isn't even the worst of it. How about having to weigh in at 116 pounds every day, when your body type calls for 150 pounds? Could you do that? Would you do that? Would you do it for 35 years?
Because he's done just that, and for just that long, Laffit Pincay Jr. is either somebody who gets off on self-denial or the greatest athlete of our time. Michael Jordan coming back at 38? Nolan Ryan pitching a no-hitter at 44? Please. Pincay never left, and here he is, at 54, riding as well as he did at 28, when, already a legend, he was installed in horse racing's Hall of Fame. He has not simply survived, past when he was chasing money or fame, but also has resumed his position as the world's most successful jockey, always the man to beat down the stretch, a gaunt picture of nobility, his huge, bony hands sawing back and forth atop yet another nag.
Right now, still battling it out on the speed-crazy California circuit, Pincay is challenging fellow Panamanian Alex Solis, 37, in the standings at Del Mar. That is hardly a fluke, as earlier this season Pincay won the riding titles at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. It is hard to overstate how remarkable his performance has been. This is a sport's most finely tuned athlete carrying on two decades past his obvious prime.
Arid for what? When he broke Bill Shoemaker's record of 8,833 career wins nearly two years ago (Shoemaker rode until he was 58), Pincay was 52, with nothing more to prove. He had recovered from his 12th broken collarbone, had no debts, had remarried and fathered a son (his son and daughter from his first marriage are grown) and might have wondered what it would be like to swallow a piece of meat, instead of chewing it and spitting it out. Instead he kept taking all the mounts he could get and, more to the point, kept winning.
So the question becomes not so much how—although at his age not even that is easily answered—as why. Other jockeys, the only ones who can appreciate what he goes through, shake their heads. "Doing this at 54?" asks Gary Stevens, who at 38 has already retired and come back. "I doubt I'll be doing this at 45." The persistence is pointless unless, of course, there is something besides history and wealth to gather. "Well," says Pincay, who presents himself as a sly operative, playful but secretly obsessed (no wonder they called him Pinky the Pirate when he came to the U.S., in 1966), "I do love to ride the horses. And when you win...." The charge down the final furlong, where Pincay outmuscles his competition (no jockey wants to look over and see Pincay alongside him in the stretch), is the kind of restorative that Ponce de Le�n never found. "That adrenaline," says Pincay, "can push you through any self-doubts."
To be a winning jockey, at any age, requires decent mounts. That Pincay still gets them is testimony to his dedication. Trainers have always respected his skills, but they need to know that he remains as committed at 54 as he was at 19. He is. That's what few people get about him, how single-minded he is. "Nobody's as dedicated as Laffit," says Eddie Delahoussaye, almost as grizzled, at 49, as his colleague. "Not me, not anybody. He eats and sleeps a race. When the day is over, I blow it off. He's looking to the next day. That's pretty tough."
Pincay does everything tough. He admits that even though he sprang from an accomplished horseman (his father was a famous rider in South America), he was never meant to be a jockey. Although he's only 5'1" ("I eat soup on his head," says one rider), he's built much broader, and with thicker legs, than the average rider. "They told me from the beginning I would be too big," he says. "But I'm a hardheaded guy."
He accepted the sacrifices his decision would require and plunged ahead in a career that took him out of Panama to Chicago, where Shoemaker remembers him as an apprentice ("In '66 when I first saw him," Shoemaker says, "I said he could be the next great rider"), then in '68 on to Southern California, where he has raced almost exclusively ever since. The rewards were great. Getting mounts on horses like Affirmed, Conquistador Cielo and John Henry, Pincay earned a reputation as an all-around rider—good hands and a good head. Few have been bolder, racing hard and tight, willing, as Pincay puts it, to "get my ass kicked a couple of times" in the jockey's room after races. "I would do anything to win," he says, "because I felt so much pressure. The wins I forget about right away. The losses, never."
Then there was that unmatched ability to urge a horse down the stretch, whether it meant using his welterweight muscles (packed onto a bantamweight's body) or only his willpower. "In the last sixteenth of a mile," trainer Bill Spawr once said, "if you've got a horse going head-to-head, I'll take Laffit over anybody." All this has earned him a record six Eclipse Awards to go with nearly a quarter-billion dollars in purses. He's had wins big (the Kentucky Derby aboard Swale in 1984) and small, but mostly just wins—more than 9,200 of them.
It's been a magnificent, one-of-a-kind career. But to keep his bargain with the sport he loves, Pincay has been on a lifelong starvation diet, finely calibrated to provide only enough energy to get him through his workout and the day of racing. The result is a walking anatomical chart, every blood vessel, muscle fiber, every strand of ligature in sharp relief. He's created a life-support system for a set of highly specific skills. That requires him to live-live?—on 850 calories a day: some cereal, some chicken and some fruit which he chops so finely that on the plate the particles of apple appear satisfying by their numbers if not their mass.