Fifteen years ago in the 112th running of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), a 73-year-old trainer put a 54-year-old jockey up on a 3-year-old colt named Ferdinand, and something magical happened. Not many people gave the two old-timers, Charlie Whittingham and Bill Shoemaker, much of a chance to win the race. Ferdinand was 17-1 on the tote board when Shoemaker guided the copper-coated son of Nijinsky II into the starting gate.
But "The Shoe," then in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, showed why a jockey can make a difference between victory and defeat, whether it's the ninth race at Hollywood Park on a Thursday or the eighth race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. The diminutive Texan, drawing on the experience of more than 36,000 races and 23 previous Derbys, made one of those split-second decisions at the top of the stretch -- a eureka moment -- that defined the 1986 running as a race won by the jockey as much as the horse.
After getting pinched back to last early, Ferdinand picked off his rivals one at a time, before running into a wall of horses at the top of the stretch. Shoemaker quickly scanned his options, saw a weakening Snow Chief to his left, and dove for what he hoped would develop into an opening along the rail. "It was one, two, three, boom," he later recalled.
The hole developed, Ferdinand sustained his momentum, and the Derby belonged to Whittingham and Shoemaker, the best two-man team in Los Angeles since Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale carried the Dodgers to a pair of World Series titles in the 1960s. "The Shoe" became the oldest jockey ever to win the Run for the Roses.
Laffit Pincay Jr. had a pretty good view of Shoemaker's move aboard Ferdinand. Two years after winning his first Derby aboard Swale, Pincay was aboard the fleet-footed Groovy, who laid down the early fractions of :22 1/5, :45 1/5, and 1:10 1/5 (among the fastest in Derby history) that helped set up Ferdinand's stretch run. By the time the field turned for home, Pincay and Groovy could see the entire field ahead of them.
The 1986 Derby was the last hurrah for Shoemaker, who retired as the all-time winningest rider in 1990 and has spent the last 10 years in a wheelchair after being paralyzed in a 1991 automobile accident.
While Ferdinand gave Shoemaker his fourth Kentucky Derby win (only Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack, with five each, have won more), Pincay has not been as fortunate. His victory aboard Swale came in his 11th try, and he's hit the board just once (second with Stephan's Odyssey in 1985) in his eight Derby mounts since that lone triumph. Though Pincay's 19 Derby rides puts him behind only Shoemaker (26 Derbys) and Arcaro (21), he hasn't had a mount in the race since 1994.
Pincay's career began sputtering in the mid-1990s as he set his sights on Shoemaker's record of 8,833 career wins. But as he drew nearer to that mark, things began to click. He passed Shoemaker on Dec. 10, 1999, and hasn't slowed down since, winning riding titles at Hollywood Park's fall meeting, Oak Tree, and the just completed Santa Anita meet. Considering the depth of talent in the Southern California jockey colony, what he has done these last few years is nothing short of remarkable.
Pincay will return to Churchill Downs with a live mount for the 127th running of the Kentucky Derby in Millennium Wind, impressive winner of the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland on April 14. Pincay, like Shoemaker in 1986, is 54 years old, and standing in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career. Can he pull a rabbit out of his hat under the Twin Spires this May 5?
Do you believe in magic?