Laffit Pincay Jr. was 12 years old when he received life-altering advice. The wise words that were difficult to hear came from a man who had overseen his development into a solid Little League second baseman. He knew him only as “Mr. Charlie.”
“You are a good baseball player, but you are going to be too small to be a professional baseball player,” said Mr. Charlie, eyeing the slightly built youngster who stood before him. “Why don’t you be a jockey like your father?”
The words initially crushed Pincay, for his dreams had always involved the baseball diamond rather than the racetracks in Panama and Venezuela where his father had ridden. But as the boy turned into a teenager and watched others enjoy growth spurts he never experienced, he realized the wisdom of what Mr. Charlie told him.
When he was 15, he convinced his mother to allow him to follow in his father’s footsteps. He set off with uncommon determination that would sustain him through one of the great riding careers in the history of the sport.
“I made myself a promise that I was going to be the best I could be,” Pincay said during a recent phone interview. “Right away, I became dedicated to being a good jockey.”
He began competing in his homeland, Panama, and soon drew the attention of Fred W. Hooper, a top horseman, and Camilo Martin, an agent. They urged him to come to the United States to pursue the American Dream. He willed it to come true. He was a success from the start, sweeping eight of his first 11 races at Arlington Park near Chicago.
He would go on to win the Eclipse Award as the outstanding jockey in North America in 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979, and 1985. He paced U.S. jockeys in earnings every year from 1970-74 and again in 1979 and 1985.
Pincay admits he surpassed his wildest dreams. “I only wanted to make enough money to help my family and make my life. I wanted to have a car and have a house,” he said. “I never thought I would become that successful.”
Pincay had the good fortune – or misfortune, depending on point of view – of riding Sham in 1973. Sham established himself as the finest 3-year-old in the West by winning the Santa Anita Derby and raised hopes that he could win the Kentucky Derby by placing second to Angle Light in the Wood Memorial with Secretariat coming in third.
But Sham was no match for Secretariat when it counted most, chasing him home second in the Derby and Preakness before pressing a blistering early pace in the Belmont that only the mighty “Big Red” could withstand.
Pincay, who was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1975, would go on to make an impact in Triple Crown races, especially the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes. He used calculating rides to sweep that marathon every year from 1982-84, triumphing aboard Conquistador Cielo, Caveat, and Swale. Swale presented him with his elusive Kentucky Derby score, the victory he identifies as the one that means the most. “For a while, I didn’t think I would win one of these,” he said. “When I won it, it was something special.”
Pincay retired in 2003 as racing’s leading jockey with 9,530 career victories, a mark that would be surpassed by Russell Baze on Dec. 1, 2006. But for many, the exploits of Pincay would never be topped.
“He was just a great rider, a very heady rider, a very strong rider,” said Eddie Delahoussaye, one of his primary rivals. “He was the best.”
Life-size bust honors him at Santa Anita Park
Was the subject of a documentary – “Laffit: All About Winning” – narrated by Kevin Costner
Street in Inglewood, Calif., was renamed Pincay Drive
Received special Eclipse Award after surpassing Bill Shoemaker with 8,834th winner, then good for all-time lead
His son, Laffit Pincay III, is a well-known racing commentator