Eternal Flame
Photo:
Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief
There is crying in horse racing, even among its toughest guys. Who can forget the Churchill Downs winner's circle following Alysheba's victory in the 1987 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) when hardboot trainer Jack Van Berg wept like a baby after winning the race his Hall of Fame father, Marion Van Berg, never could?

No jockey in the history of Thoroughbred racing is tougher than Laffit Pincay Jr., who overcame personal tragedy, countless injuries, and a career-long weight battle to be the world's winningest jockey, with 9,530 victories. Yet even tough-guy Laffit couldn't get through a retirement ceremony at Hollywood Park on July 13 without being overcome with emotion. He wasn't alone.

"I still have that fire inside me that I cannot put out," said Pincay, who officially announced his retirement April 29, two months after suffering vertebra fractures to his neck in a March 1 spill at Santa Anita Park.

That fire fueled an unparalleled career, sustaining him through 38 years in the saddle after arriving from his native Panama in 1966. It kept him going when his first wife, Linda, committed suicide in 1985. Carried him through seemingly torturous diets that allowed him to ride at 117 pounds, far lighter than his frame and muscular build suggest. Pushed him through some lean years in the 1990s when others gave up on him and thought his career was fading.

Instead of fading, however, Pincay came back with amazing resilience. Gone were the days when he had his pick of the litter from the best stables, but he made the most of the opportunities given. The number of winners slowly picked up, and so did business. For jockeys, it's a game of momentum, whether you are going up or down.

Pincay took dead aim at Bill Shoemaker's all-time win record of 8,833 and breezed past the mark on Dec. 10, 1999. Suddenly he was riding for the best barns, and winning race meeting titles again, just like the old days. He was riding winners at a 21% clip this year, his best percentage since 1987. Ten thousand career victories seemed a certainty.

Then came the spill. Fans were horrified to see Pincay momentarily lying motionless on the turf, but he walked away from the accident that was caused when his mount clipped the heels of a front-runner who drifted in front of him.

Initial reports said Pincay planned to return to riding in a few days after being diagnosed at the track with only bumps and bruises. But when the pain didn't go away, Pincay sought a second opinion. The doctors who then discovered the fractures told him the risk of continuing his career was too great if he re-injured his neck.

This wasn't how Pincay wanted it to end. No one did.

There was no farewell tour for Laffit, no final victory to be celebrated. But Hollywood Park did its part to remind us of his contributions to racing, honoring Pincay on Hollywood Gold Cup Day, the biggest day of the summer meeting, and bringing in fellow Hall of Famers like Angel Cordero Jr. and Jorge Velasquez from New York to join the West Coast jockey colony in celebrating his career.

There was the standard retirement ceremony fare mixed with a bit of the unusual: proclamations from politicians and racing executives; jerseys and uniforms from local professional sports teams whose players admired Pincay's commitment to his craft; and a street adjacent to the racetrack named in his honor.

It was the heartfelt comments from his fellow riders, however, that showed how much Pincay was looked upon as a role model among his peers and how much he will be missed by everyone in the sport. The tears flowed, from the Hollywood Park winner's circle, up to the grandstand, and into the living rooms of people who watched on the TV Games Network.

But even all those tears won't put out the fire inside.

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