Keeneland Report: Pincay, the Millennium Man

One week before the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), Laffit Pincay Jr. sat comfortably in a rocking chair half a continent away from Keeneland in the Santa Anita Park jocks' room. Asked to pick his biggest thrill in racing, Pincay could be forgiven if he tussled awhile with the question. After all, there have been 35 years of memories: the ascension to all-time leading rider; induction into the Hall of Fame; six Eclipse Awards; seven wins on one card; historic stakes wins on horses like Affirmed and John Henry. Yet his answer came before the question had time to dry--his win aboard Swale in the 1984 Kentucky Derby (gr. I).

The 54-year-old legend booked a return trip to Louisville for another potential thrill ride in early May courtesy of his masterful effort aboard Millennium Wind in the 77th rendition of the $750,000 Blue Grass April 14. Riding with the experience of his years and the body of a man half his age, Pincay, 9,114 wins under his boots and going on like a stayer, seems intent on creating more career highlights in this, the second prime of his career. Millennium Wind will be his first Derby mount since Valiant Nature in 1994. One day after the Blue Grass, he clinched the Santa Anita riding title.

Certainly his Blue Grass partnering of Millennium Wind, a son of Cryptoclearance, was vintage Pincay. David and Jill Heerensperger's strapping colt still has a learning curve. The Blue Grass was just his fifth career start, and the not-yet 3-year-old (April 30) has spent the winter and early spring fighting hoof and allergy problems.

His talent (two wins, two seconds coming in) is tempered by the usual greenness of youth. But his lack of seasoning is rendered less important by the presence of the famed strength of his pilot. California aficionados will relate case after case of Pincay literally picking horses up by the reins and carrying them across the wire. Millennium Wind's 5 1/4-length winning margin belies the effort expended by Pincay to get him there.

Spring and Derby dreams converged on Keeneland this second week of April. A warm sun broke through for the highlight of the spring meeting, and shined down upon as evenly matched a Blue Grass field as any in recent memory. Form for the seven starters was made difficult to analyze because three came out of the March 11 Louisiana Derby (gr. II), which was run rougher than a mine-against-yours Sunday challenge at one of that state's bush strips.

Hero's Tribute didn't work free until mid-stretch in Louisiana, finishing third. Millennium Wind lost ground around both turns and battled on the pace too long before settling for second. And Dollar Bill clipped heels and nearly went down before rallying gamely for fourth. Invisible Ink and Songandaprayer both fell victim to Monarchos' monster move in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and were eligible to improve. A P Valentine traveled the back roads to Lexington, coming off an allowance tally at Hialeah, but with his Champagne (gr. I) tour de force still fresh in minds. Bonnie Scot, who cut his stakes teeth at Turfway Park, appeared to be the only one a cut below.

In a race this closely matched, the difference came down to a tale of two dreams. The first belonged to trainer David Hofmans, still toiling below the public's radar despite sending out Alphabet Soup to defeat Cigar in the 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) and Touch Gold to deny Silver Charm the Triple Crown in the '97 Belmont Stakes (gr. I). For the latter, he was rewarded by having Touch Gold removed from his shedrow. Hofmans carries on, relating to horses and people with equal élan.

Three months before the Blue Grass, the conditioner dreamed that Pincay won the Triple Crown aboard Millennium Wind--and then retired. What made the dream odd--as dreams often are--is that Chris McCarron (the rider on Alphabet Soup and Touch Gold) had ridden Millennium Wind in all four of his starts. But cue the "Twilight Zone" music: McCarron came to Hofmans a couple of weeks ago to report he was staying at Santa Anita to partner Bienamado in the San Juan Capistrano (gr. IT). Hofmans' reaction? "The dream is working out. I went right for Laffit because I thought he could finish on this horse. He was perfect."

Trainer and jockey conferred before the Blue Grass. They felt they had more speed than Songandaprayer, and thought Hero's Tribute would want the front. The plan was to lay off that one and gain rating experience going into the Derby. When the gates sprang, however, Plan B went into effect.

"If somebody would have really sent, I would have sat second," Pincay said. "But I had plenty of horse to make the lead and save ground into the first turn." Songandaprayer broke alertly and sat the tracking trip behind Millennium Wind. John Velazquez moved Invisible Ink up the rail third, and Hero's Tribute settled in next. Neither Dollar Bill nor A P Valentine showed early interest, keeping each other company at the rear behind Bonnie Scot.

Millennium Wind possesses a long, deceivingly fast stride. Four days before the race, his exercise rider thought they had logged 1:01 for five furlongs when the bullet work actually clocked in at :58 and change. Up the Blue Grass backside, it was Pincay's turn to be surprised. "He was going faster than I thought because he was traveling so easily." After clipping off sub-:24 quarters for the first six furlongs, Pincay and Millennium Wind got the breather they needed, going :25 flat to the mile marker. Songandaprayer and Edgar Prado got to just about even terms leaving the second bend, with the others losing touch.

Millennium Wind had another gear left for the straight, quickly putting daylight between himself and the Fountain of Youth (gr. I) winner. Hofmans knew his horse has a tendency to wait on other horses on the lead. He may have forgotten to tell his rider. "A couple of times down the stretch he completely quit running on me," Pincay said, affording a smile. "He pinned his ears back and I said, 'Oh, God, don't do this to me now.' I kept after him until he changed his mind and started to run again. Then we both did the same thing all over a second time." Millennium Wind went under the wire in 1:48.32 for the nine furlongs.

Songandaprayer stayed for second, with Dollar Bill rallying for third. Bobby Hurley, the basketball star who owns a majority of Songandaprayer, seemed cautiously optimistic about traveling further down the Derby trail. "We're encouraged he showed speed and stayed in the mix against nice horses. It was a good move." Dallas Stewart, trainer of Dollar Bill, thought his charge was "flying at the end. We sure didn't get to the bottom of him today, so we'll have a strong, fresh horse for the Derby." A pessimist would note Dollar Bill actually lost ground to the winner down the lane.

The others would seem to be playing catch-up. Nick Zito looked dazed following A P Valentine's non-threatening fifth. Jockey Corey Nakatani was urging him not to get discouraged because "he struggled with the deep, loose track."

The Heerenspergers paid $1.2 million for Millennium Wind out of the 1999 Keene-land September yearling sale. The colt was picked out for them by Hofmans after his half-brother, Charismatic, snatched two legs of the Triple Crown. His $465,000 Blue Grass check brings Millennium Wind's career earnings to $769,920. Millennium Wind was bred in Kentucky by the Roach family's Parrish Hill Farm, and is the final foal out of the deceased Bali Babe, who would become the only dam of two Kentucky Derby winners should Millennium Wind repeat his performance in Louisville.

(Chart, Equibase)

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