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On Jan. 18, 1985, the telephone rang in the jockeys' room at Santa Anita Park. Harold Wolk, the track's assistant clerk of the scales, answered it and heard the voice of a young girl on the line. It was 15-year-old Lisa Pincay. She was crying. "This is Laffit Pincay's daughter," she said. "May I please speak to my father?"
Alarmed, Wolk glanced around the jocks' room and saw Pincay lounging in front of a television set. It was late in the day at Santa Anita, and the eighth race had just been run. Pincay was waiting to ride in the ninth. Slightly panicked, Wolk shouted, "Laffit! Telephone! Now!"
What Laffit Pincay Jr. will forever remember is the strangeness of his daughter's words as she spoke haltingly to him: "Dad? My...my...my mom shot herself."
The man holding the phone in the jockeys' room that day, arguably the greatest rider in America for the last 16 years, has led the nation's jockeys seven times in money won. There are those who would choose Angel Cordero Jr., the brilliant, though at times rule-bending, tactician, but year after year the major records have fallen to Pincay. And while he has not enjoyed the kind of year in 1986 that he has in past seasons—in June he sprained an ankle in a spill and missed a month of racing—he insists he is riding smarter than ever. That claim was borne out in the Breeders' Cup two weeks ago when he became the only jockey to bring home two winners. He won the $3 million Classic aboard Skywalker in the best ride of the day and guided Capote to victory in the $1 million Juvenile, a victory that will make that colt the winter-book favorite for next year's Kentucky Derby.
For years Pincay has been the nation's most powerful finisher, throwing his muscular, 117-pound frame so fiercely into a horse's closing strides that he often gives the appearance of lifting his mount at the final jump and dropping the horse's nose on the wire. He has all the other tools, too: fine hands, balance, a sharp sense of pace, and fearlessness in traffic. Above all that, he has a sense of self-discipline off the racetrack that other jockeys consider almost heroic. Constantly at war with weight, he has gone on and off diets, and there was actually a time when his main staple was unsalted nuts and bran.
All of these attributes have earned Pincay five Eclipse awards, the industry's Oscar. They also earned him early election to racing's Hall of Fame. That was in 1975, only nine years after he came to the U.S. from his native Panama.
But nothing he can recall in all those years at racetracks is so seared in his memory as that moment on Jan. 18, 1985.
Hearing his daughter's words, Pincay screamed, "She can't do this! She can't do this!"
Pincay bolted to his locker. "I went into shock," he says. Pale and shaken, saying nothing, he dressed quickly. "Are you O.K.?" asked valet Dave Rushlow.
"Something terrible has happened," cried Pincay. He dashed out the door and headed for the clubhouse, leaving a pall in the room. Bill Shoemaker, Pincay's best friend among the riders, called his wife, Cindy, on the phone. Cindy Shoemaker was close to Laffit's wife, Linda, and the two couples often socialized. "You better get over to the Pincay house," Bill told her. "I don't know why, but Laffit just left here in tears."