1st Stop: Arlington Park

Copyright 1999 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.   Chicago Sun-Times December 10, 1999, FRIDAY, Late Sports Final Edition HEADLINE: 1st stop: Arlington Park ;  Pincay's record ride started with win here BY JIM O'DONNELL

It wasn't Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance or even Kessinger-to-Beckert-to-Boccabella.

But for thoroughbred racing fans in the summer of 1966, the infield of the Jockeys team in the Arlington Park Backstretch League might have been as golden a group as has ever traded daytime whips for nighttime 12-inch softball gloves.

"Laffit (Pincay Jr.) was the third baseman, Bill Hartack was the first baseman, Carlos Marquez (Sr.) was the second baseman and I was the shortstop," said Eddie Arroyo, now the general manager of Sportsman's Park but back in those days an apprentice rider at the northwest suburban oval. "And we were good. We were smart and quick and young and our careers were all ahead of us."

No one could predict it during those hot softball nights and hotter racing days, but one of those infielders would go on to become the most prolific winning jockey in the history of thoroughbred racing.

Pincay, 52, moved closer to making that official Thursday at Hollywood Park when he won with one of his five mounts, tying Bill Shoemaker's career mark of 8,833.

That charmed circle was a long way from the greeting that the 19-year-old Panamanian received when he arrived at O'Hare Airport in late June 1966, to begin his American career.

"I rode with his new agent, Camilo Marin, to the airport to pick him up," said Bill Thayer, a long-time vice president at Arlington who was then-owner Marje Everett's director of horseman relations in 1966.

"Camilo had gone to Fred Hooper, an influential owner of the time, to tell him that he had a hot young rider who was ready to come up from Panama. He told Hooper that the jock was the next (Braulio) Baeza, another great Latin who Marin had brought to Hooper a few years before. So Hooper put young Laffit under contract and we picked him up and all I saw in the backseat was this polite, quiet, almost timid young fellow."

Phil Georgeff, who then pulled double duty at Arlington as both announcer and Everett's publicity director, remembered the positive frontstretch politics awaiting Hooper's new rider.

"Marje played favorites, and few owners at Arlington in that era were as favored as Fred Hooper," Georgeff recalled.

"He was a contractor from Miami who entered the thoroughbred world with a bang when he won the 1945 Kentucky Derby with Hoop Jr., the first horse he had ever bought. Later, he always had a great stable at Arlington.

"Hooper was also a mainstay of Marje's nightime card parties in the old Inn (later the Post and Paddock Club), an invitation that meant you had arrived in Everett's version of Arlington society. Other regulars were people like Jimmy Durante, when he was in town, Shoemaker, Charlie Wacker III, Buddy Hirsch and Modie Spiegel of the catalog family.

"What this all meant was that anyone with Hooper's sponsorship in the Arlington jocks colony was going to be a force."

For young Pincay, being a force in Arlington's class of '66 would mean competing with superstars like Hartack and Shoemaker, ace journeymen such as Bobby Nono and Leroy Moyers and hungry young riders, including Arroyo, 19-year-old Earlie Fires and Craig Perret.

On Friday afternoon, July 1, Pincay had his first prime-time American assignment -- piloting Hooper's Teacher's Art in a 2-year-old allowance race at 5 1/2 furlongs.

The holiday weekend crowd may not have known much about the new reinsman, but they knew enough about Hooper's horse. Teacher's Art had run first and second in his lone career starts and was bet down to 3-5.

With Pincay up, entering the gate shortly after 5:30 p.m. (Arlington had a first post of 3:45 that day), there were no disappointments. Horse and newcomer won by 1 3/4 lengths. The straight mutuel was $ 3.40; the victory was Pincay's first in his new land.

Before the three-day holiday weekend was out (no Sunday racing under Illinois law of the time), Pincay had also scored with three other mounts: Olympia Site ($ 7.40), Prez U. ($ 19.40) and Stern Judge ($ 14.20).

Still, early reviews were mixed.

"I felt there was no doubt from first seeing Laffit that he was going to be a great one," said Tom Rivera, then the lead racing writer for one of Chicago's four daily newspapers and currently the president of the Greater Woodfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"He was a smart, classy individual with a powerful physique and great hands. He could have been a top athlete in any number of sports."

But Georgeff said: "Personally, I felt Baeza looked much more imposing, much more aerodynamically sound, saddle perfect, in his early days. Nineteen sixty-six essentially was a year of American apprenticeship for Pincay. But then the next year, 1967, he took off, just exploded."

After finishing the 1966 Arlington meet with 42 victories, Pincay rode briefly at Hawthorne before moving to Santa Anita. There, he finished with 63 wins, behind Shoemaker (81), expanding his growing reputation.

The following summer at Arlington, the maturing saddle master -- now all of 20 -- did explode, capturing his only meet title at the suburban track with 109 wins. He also won four major stakes including the Lassie, the Arlington Handicap, the Stars and Stripes and the Arch Ward.

Pincay again wintered in Southern California. He returned to ride most of the 1968 season at Arlington and notched his only Hawthorne jockey's crown that fall with 33 wins.

By 1970, Pincay's tack was permanently hung in the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor, lured in large part by better purses and the opportunity for year-round racing from a single home base. Since then, he has made only rare appearances in Chicago, winning eight major stakes. Among them: two Arlington Millions (1982-Perrault and 1991-Tight Spot) and one Hawthorne Gold Cup (1971-Twice Worthy).

One of those rarities came on Labor Day Weekend, 1985, when he piloted the Gene Klein-D. Wayne Lukas freshman filly Family Style to victory in the Arlington-Washington Lassie.

Because of the catastrophic fire at Arlington five weeks before, the race was run at Hawthorne. Long after the win, a cool, elegant Pincay leaned against a railing in the indoor paddock at Hawthorne and chatted with two lingering sportswriters.

"It's always a thrill to come back to Chicago and win," he said on that sunny Saturday. "This city meant a lot to me. It was my port of entry to America. I showed up at Arlington an unknown kid from Panama who couldn't speak the language with a lot of dreams. A whole lot of dreams."

A whole lot of which -- 8,833 and counting -- have now been realized.

Not bad for one of the most promising third basemen that the backstretch softball leagues of Chicago have ever seen.