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Every great jockey has a special gift by which he is known, a particular skill that defines his name in terms of his art. Bill Shoemaker and Darrel McHargue have the hands, seemingly guiding their mounts with threads of silk. Then there are the disciples of the Ted Atkinson school of whip-riding. Once, after lashing a horse ferociously at the finish, Atkinson explained, "I was merely trying to impress upon him the urgency of the situation."
There may be no rider in America today who hits a horse as hard as Chris McCarron. And here and there are the heirs of Eddie Arcaro, the master of pace—jockeys with stopwatches in their heads. There also are superior grass riders like Jean Cruguet and front-runners like Angel Cordero and those who excel at coming off the pace, like Jeffrey Fell.
And then there is Laffit Pincay Jr., standing quite alone among his peers. He has fine hands and exceptional judgment of pace, but to see Pincay in a stretch drive—head down, body pitched forward, snapping out his arms and throwing all his extraordinary strength into a horse's stride—is to begin to understand the essence of his gifts, the underlying reason for his unparalleled success. For no one finishes a race like Laffit Pincay Jr., no one is tougher 20 yards from the wire.
"I've seen times where other guys were riding better for a month or two," says Bobby Frankel, a leading California trainer, "but day after day, year after year, Laffit is the best rider I've ever seen."
In this his 14th season in America, Pincay, 32, is having the finest year of his career and he could become the first rider to earn $7 million in a year. In 1973 Pincay became the first rider in history to win $4 million in purses in a single season—$4,093,492, to be exact—a record that many thought would stand for years. But with ever more racing dates and spiraling purses fueled by inflation, the money-winning record has since been broken four times, by Pincay himself in 1974 ($4,251,060), by Cordero in 1976 ($4,709,500), by Steve Cauthen in 1977 ($6,151,750) and by McHargue last year, when his mounts earned $6,188,353. Pincay broke McHargue's record Oct. 6 when Affirmed won the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, a victory worth $225,000, with the customary 10% going to Pincay. That pushed his purse earnings for the year to $6,384,568 with a little less than three months left in the racing season. What makes the $7-million mark a possibility is that he has become the regular rider for Harbor View Farm and its trainer, Laz Barrera. Barrera has the horses. Among others, he saddles Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown champion, who has already won $1,148,800 in 1979, all but $29,000 with Pincay up.
For Pincay, this year has been a reaffirmation, a return to the preeminence he enjoyed five years in a row, from 1970 to '74, when he was the leading money-winning rider in America and a three-time winner of the Eclipse Award as the nation's leading jockey. (He was elected to racing's Hall of Fame in 1975.) But the glory years had also been a time of torment. Engaged in a constant struggle to keep his weight down, he would collapse from exhaustion, hallucinate on planes, become dizzy, sick, moody, depressed. What has made this year so memorable for him is that, for the first full season he can recall, he has suffered none of this. Loose on the lead, Pincay is widening on his past, enjoying himself as he did when as a child he was climbing lofty mango trees in his native Panama City.
Admittedly, Pincay was a ruffian. He traveled with gangs, a Roberto Duran without the snarl, picking fights wherever he roamed. "A troublemaker," he says of himself. He was the son of a famous Panamanian jockey, Laffit Pincay Sr., who left home when Laffit was a small child. Soon afterward his mother, Rosario, who worked as a distributor for the Panama Gazette, married a carpenter. Laffit ran loose, on the beach and in the streets, but Rosario, a fretting mother, pleaded that he be careful.
"You look just like your father, Laffit," friends would say. "You going to be a jockey?"
"Don't say that to Laffit!" Rosario would say. Pincay wanted to be a baseball player—and he did become the second baseman on the Panama national baseball team—but the racetrack exerted a powerful attraction. "Are you related to the Laffit Pincay?" people would ask. The elder Pincay, who had gone off to Venezuela to ride, retired as a jockey in 1970 and still lives in Caracas.
Laffit apprenticed at the racetrack in Panama City without pay for 14 months, hot-walking and grooming, slicing grass with a machete and lugging it to the stables in a burlap bag. Covered with mud, bag slung over his back, one day he met his mother, who had come by to see what he was doing.