It may come as a surprise to learn that the world's top jockey is no longer—depending on how you view such matters—Bill Shoemaker. Lester Piggott or Yves Saint-Martin. He is, instead, a vibrantly muscular Panamanian named Laffit Pincay (pronounced La-feet Pinkeye). With his skill he has stolen so many races from the opposition that fans have begun calling him Pincay the Pirate. Even Shoemaker, now 40 and curtailing his riding activity, hesitates not a flick of the whip to note, "Laffit is the next champion, whether he beats my lifetime record [6,263 wins] or not. He's the finest rider to come along since I've been in a position to judge."
The 25-year-old Pincay has few interests outside of racing. It is the sum and substance of his life and he has funneled his immense supply of energy toward one goal—becoming the world's most successful jockey. This season he has achieved that rating.
Pincay made a runaway of the jockeys' race at the 1971 Santa Anita and Hollywood Park meetings, becoming the first rider in 18 years to thrash Shoemaker in head-to-head competition. At Hollywood his 106 victories (Shoe's total: 78) broke the record of 105 set in 1948 by Johnny Longden. Moving east in late July, Pincay faced riders at Saratoga who had the advantage of having established themselves with New York trainers during the preceding months. But Pincay topped the winners' list at that track, too, and as Aqueduct moves into its final weeks no rider stands a chance of beating him, barring injury or suspension. Last Saturday, with his victory on the 13-to-l shot Red Reality in the $60,000 Stuyvesant Handicap, he moved 14 wins ahead of his closest rival.
Every day he rides, Pincay is now setting records. In September he passed Braulio Baeza's earnings mark for one season of just over $3 million; it would not be surprising if Pincay's mounts by the end of this year had collected $3.7 million: his share of the winnings is roughly 10 percent.
Life for Laffit was not always richly rewarding. He was the second of four children of a Panamanian jockey. When his parents divorced, his father, who is now a trainer, moved to Venezuela. "As a kid I hardly ever saw him," Pincay says. "He was away in Caracas. I know he came to New York on at least one occasion—to ride Primordial II and win the Display Handicap at Aqueduct in 1964. I used to meet him once in a while, but seldom now."
For many Panama City boys—and Pincay was one—school was tolerable only if it was mixed with long sessions at the city's lone racetrack. At 15 Laffit got a job as a hot-walker, mucking out stalls without pay. "I would work at the track from six in the morning until 11:30," Pincay recalls. "Then I would go to school from two until six or seven at night. It was a year before I could exercise horses, and still another year before I started breezing and working them out of the gate. During this time I was being helped tremendously by an old man, a former rider with a great deal of courage named Bolivar Moreno. He had started a school to teach boys like me to become jockeys. Before my time, such riders as Manuel Ycaza, Braulio Baeza and Heliodoro Gustines mostly taught themselves through experience on the track—or they were helped by the trainers and the families they worked for. But by the time Jorge Velasquez and I came along, Moreno had his school set up. And after us Jorge Tejeira studied with him also."
Moreno's courses, at least the preliminary lessons, were based on Eddie Arcaro's series on the Art of Race Riding, which had appeared in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (June 17, 1957 et seq.). "Moreno told us that this showed the best way to do things," Pincay says. "Then he would put a barrel down for us to sit on and use some cord to make stirrups and reins. He would lecture—'You should do this and that,' and we would be trying to study the pictures of Arcaro and do this and do that the way Arcaro demonstrated. All this time I was reading about the big names like Shoemaker, Longden, Rotz, Turcotte and our own Baeza and Ycaza. It seemed impossible that I would ever come to the United States. I never thought I could make it; it was so difficult."
Pincay's opinion of himself changed as soon as he began regular race riding as an apprentice. In two years he rode over 400 winners and was Panama's leading rider, which gave him supreme confidence. He was brought to the U.S. by Fred W. Hooper. If Hooper had not made a name for himself by winning a Kentucky Derby with the first horse he ever bought (Hoop, Jr., who cost $10,200), racing would remember this man as the discoverer and sponsor of Panamanian riders. "I'm batting 3 for 3," he said not long ago, "and I'm scared if I take another chance I might spoil my average."
In 1960, Panamanian Owner Ramon Navaro first tipped Hooper on a promising young rider, Braulio Baeza. Would Hooper please give the boy a chance? Hooper did, and that seemed to work out rather well. Two years later Navaro tugged at Hooper's sleeve once more and recommended Velasquez. In 1965 Navaro told Hooper about Pincay. The next summer Laffit joined the Hooper stable at Arlington Park. The partnership was an immediate success, despite the fact the young rider could speak little English and was facing at his first race meeting such formidable competitors as Bill Hartack, John Sellers and, later on, Shoemaker himself. "At the time Mr. Hooper had a good filly named Teacher's Art," Pincay remembers. "He took another boy off her, saying he'd pay him for the ride anyway; he put me on that day and we won easy. I was lucky to start fast. Out of the first 11 mounts I think I won eight races, and even though I came late to Chicago 1 finished as the third leading rider. Then we went to Hawthorne Park and I was leading rider. Then on to New York, where I believe I finished third."
Vince DeGregory, who earlier had helped launch the career of Jockey Angel Cordero Jr., became Pincay's agent two years ago and further increased Laffit's success. "I just can't say enough about my boy," says DeGregory. "He's a combination of Bob Ussery finishing and Baeza sitting still. He rides as well on the lead as he does from behind. He can switch whips, stick-ride or hand-ride with anyone. He doesn't get excited and is a logical thinker. He's so anxious to be helpful that he picked up English in five months, and now he can make sensible suggestions to trainers about equipment and strategy."