Santa Anita becomes this legend most

December 26, 1999 ARCADIA, Calif. - Laffit Pincay Jr. was just 19 when he first beheld the misty splendor of the San Gabriel Mountains on a December morning in 1966. He remembers walking through the Santa Anita stable gates with his agent, Camilo Marin, stopping at the backstretch kitchen for coffee, and hearing all around the warm and familiar sounds of his native Spanish. It wasn't home, but it felt right. 

So began Pincay's romance with Santa Anita, 33 years ago this week. He was still the wide-eyed kid from Panama City, committed to ride at Santa Anita because that was where his contract-holder, Fred Hooper, told him to go. The teenager had already made an impression at Arlington Park in the summer and Aqueduct in the fall. Now it was California's turn to sit up and take notice.

Pincay found himself in a Santa Anita jockeys' room indisputably led by Bill Shoemaker, although it was a mistake to think that Don Pierce, Bill Harmatz, or Jerry Lambert would ever cut you any slack. Among their colleagues were the Easterners Walter Blum, Eddie Belmonte, Manny Ycaza, and Braulio Baeza.

Pincay lived at the Westerner Motel, right across the street from the racetrack. He buddied around with Miguel Yanez, Alvaro Pineda, and the Valenzuela brothers, Milo and Mario. He worked on his English by dating California girls. And he explored his new world every chance he got.

"I remember driving up the Pasadena Freeway from the airport when I arrived the first time," Pincay recalled this week, as he prepared for his 34th Santa Anita season. "It felt like a long way to go. Then the next morning, I remember getting up and going to the track. God, it was pretty."

The San Gabriels became Pincay's point of reference. As long as he could see the mountains, he never felt lost.

"Every time I drove around by myself, trying to get to know the place, I knew I had to come back home by looking at the mountains," he recalled.

The importance of Santa Anita in Pincay's life can not be exaggerated. For four intense months at the beginning of every year, it was his home away from home. Eventually, Santa Anita came to represent not only the satisfaction of Pincay's rampant success, but also the agonies of his battle with weight, his time spent across the street in Arcadia Methodist Hospital recovering from injuries, and his commitment to a career that required no less intensity on cold and rainy Thursdays in February.

At Santa Anita Park, there is a bronze bust of Pincay in the paddock. This is fitting, since it honors the man who has won the most races in the history of the track. It also should come as no surprise that Pincay remembers his first Santa Anita winner as if he had brought it home yesterday. "Rising Market," he said without pause. "Opening day, and I beat Shoemaker in a photo. That gave me a lot of credibility, because it seemed like nobody could beat Shoemaker in the close ones back then."

That was Dec. 26, 1966. A crowd of 50,264 packed the park that day. Pincay finished fifth on his first mount, Walk Out, in the fourth race on the card. (Shoemaker won it. Who else?) Then, in the fifth, Pincay and Rising Market beat Shoemaker and Sand Devil by a nose going six furlongs.

"I used to buy the pictures of all my winners," Pincay said. "Every one of them. But after a few years of riding, I had to quit buying pictures. I didn't know where to put all of them. There were too many."

Little wonder that Pincay badly wanted to break Shoemaker's record of 8,833 winners some time during the Santa Anita meet. It didn't happen that way. Things got going so hot at Hollywood Park that Pincay not only set the mark on Dec. 10, he kept going to win the meet riding title as well, with 32 winners in 31 days.

"When I compete for leading rider, I think I get better," Pincay said. "I get more into it. I study the Form more. I think about what I'm going to do. Even after I broke the record, I was thinking about being leading rider. That's just the way I am." He turns 53 this Wednesday, Dec. 29, a sobering thought that is not lost on Pincay. He has no delusions that he can lead a long meet like Santa Anita at this point in his career.

"I told my agent I wouldn't mind riding five, six horses a day," he said. "But I know I'm getting older. I know I can make myself do it. But I don't want to burn myself out. I just want to go a steady pace, do good, and see what happens without putting any pressure on myself."

In the meantime, the pleasure is ours to enjoy Pincay while we can.

--Jay Hovdey

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