LOUISVILLE, Ky. — He looked much younger then, of course, but it has been 17 years. The voice, though, was the same that May afternoon in 1984 as it is now.
"I just let out a scream," Laffit Pincay said. "I said, 'Wow! Beautiful!' When I pulled up my horse, I felt like kissing him, which I think I did. I didn't know what to say. I just said, 'God, I finally got this race.' "
This race. The Kentucky Derby.
The glow of that long-ago afternoon has not yet faded, the memory of Swale striding first across the finish line at Churchill Downs carrying Pincay and the yellow colors of Claiborne Farm remains intact.
On Saturday, the Panama-born Pincay, now a 54-year-old grandfather and thoroughbred racing's all-time winning jockey with 9,130 victories, will ride in his 20th Kentucky Derby, a figure third only to Bill Shoemaker's 26 and Eddie Arcaro's 21.
He also will become one of only nine jockeys to have ridden in the Derby in each of four decades.
And when he and Millennium Wind walk out onto the track, there will be many in the anticipated crowd of 150,000 who will have bet a few dollars for old time's sake, hoping against hope that Pincay can find his way to this particular winner's circle one more time.
The other day, Pincay, who arrives in Churchill Downs from Los Angeles this afternoon, was asked what it felt like to be riding in the Derby again after an absence of seven years.
"It feels great," he said. "Gosh, winning the Derby, this is the best race in the world. I did it once and the feeling was unbelievable. I would love to have that feeling again.
"I would do anything to win another Derby, but if I don't, well, at least I did it once and that was good enough for me."
There have been all sorts of stories written about Pincay in the days and weeks leading up to Saturday's 127th running of the 1 1/4-mile classic.
Some have focused on the jockey's return to the top, how he fought his way out of a three-year slump that had him contemplating a move to the less-competitive tracks of Northern California and how he once again is winning leading-jockey titles, most recently one last winter at Santa Anita.
Others have focused on Pincay's constant battle to maintain his racing weight of 117 pounds on a 5-foot-1 frame. The answer? A diet of apples, oranges, blueberries, protein bars and a little chicken or fish, seldom adding up to more than 850 calories a day.
But not many have explored the real reason Pincay keeps getting up at 5 in the morning and heading to the track.
Why does he do it?
"The love for the game," he replied. "I love to ride, I love the competition, I love to be out there trying to win a race. What else could I do that I enjoy?"
The fact that he is regularly defeating jockeys half his age and younger is a source of continuing satisfaction.
"I thought I would be riding till I was about 30," he said. "And I just kept going and I kept saying, 'Five more years, two more years, five more years, two more years.' I love to ride, so I just kept on going.
"I won't think about retiring. As long as it's fun for me, I'm going to keep riding. As long as I think I can do justice out there with the horses I ride, I'm going to keep riding."
Pincay has not ridden in the Derby since 1994, when he and Valiant Nature finished second-last after the colt came close to clipping the heels of another horse on the crowded clubhouse turn.
"I almost went down," Pincay said. "It could have been pretty ugly there. Thank God nothing happened."
In the intervening years, he has been asked to come to Churchill Downs, of course, but usually it was on horses that were not among the favorites.
"Ever since I won the Derby, I didn't want to go back there with a horse that had no chance," he said.
He did make one mistake, however, opting to stay in California in 1999 instead of accepting the ride on Charismatic, who went on to win the Derby under Chris Antley.
Still, 1999 brought a different reward. That was the year Pincay finally caught and passed Shoemaker's record of 8,833 victories. Last October, he became the first rider to break the 9,000-win barrier.
Pincay's return to the Derby at 54 has brought a few wisecracks--"I don't know, can he go a mile and a quarter?" Wayne Lukas asked--but it has also brought comments such as these by Pincay's fellow Derby winner Pat Day:
"He's an incredible individual. He's a tremendous asset to the riding colony wherever he goes. He's a great rider, a great person, a great role model, tremendously disciplined. You just can't say enough about him.
"Obviously he's got all the tools, but he's got it in an oversized body where he has to watch his weight continuously, and that is just a work of art. And to maintain his enthusiasm and drive at 54, given all that he's had to deal with over the years, it's just incredible.
"All he needs is the stock. For a few years there, he wasn't getting the opportunities. Now the opportunities are coming back and he's making the most of them."