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BILL DWYRE

Laffit Pincay Jr. represents horse racing perfectly

Jockey's story of unparalleled success during the sport's heyday was already written when he suffered life-threatening injury. He emerges as ambassador for his sport as the 'luckiest man alive.'

July 14, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Laffit Pincay Jr. was in the winner's circle at Hollywood Park again last weekend. Lord knows how many times he has been there before.

The dress code for him is different these days; it has been since he retired as a jockey in 2003. The coat and tie is still not his uniform of choice in that arena.

Pincay is 62. He won 9,530 races and horses he rode won $237.4 million. That he is in the Hall of Fame is a given. When he was inducted in 1975, he hadn't even begun to approach the greatness that came later.

His appearance Saturday, before the seventh race and about half an hour before the running of the 70th Hollywood Gold Cup -- which he won a record nine times -- was to present an award in his name to former jockey Merlin Volzke, who is 83.

"He never had many big horses to ride," Pincay said a few days before the presentation. "But my wife, Linda, used to bet on him all the time and do pretty well. She called him Merlin the Magician."

The ceremony, nicely handled by the participants, was lost on most of the 10,091 who attended on a day in horse racing that once drew six or seven times that many.

There was another race going on from somewhere else, and voices echoed down the hallways, rooting home some $15,000 claimer from Pleasanton on TV monitors and momentarily drowning out what was taking place in front of the grandstand. Apparently, no ceremony is worth paying attention to when your 2-6-3 trifecta is alive.

Racing shot itself in the foot years ago, when it got greedy and started allowing anybody to bet on anything from anywhere. Once, going to Hollywood Park was a special event, a self-contained occasion. Now, even on the bigger days, it is more like a place to find a bigger TV set and a handy betting window.

The wound is not healing and the bulldozers hover nearby, awaiting a better economic climate so the investors from the north can make Hollywood Park into condos and larger profits.

Lost in all this is a history and tradition that the sport could draw on, that the likes of Pincay represent. His is a story that could have the prominence of DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, the allure of Ali-Frazier. Horse racing fans know it and have kind of forgotten. General sports fans may be surprised to hear it.

On March 1, 2003, Santa Anita Handicap Day, the most famous jockey in the world was aboard a horse named Trampus Too in the fifth race, a dash down the hill on Santa Anita's famed turf course that turns right before it turns left and then crosses a stretch of dirt on the way home.

Near that stretch, an inexperienced jockey moved out and into the path of Trampus Too, who clipped the back of the legs and sent Laffit Pincay flying. He landed on his neck, Trampus Too landed on top of him and a series of events would transpire that made Pincay's appearance in the winner's circle last Saturday yet another chapter in an ongoing miracle.

Pincay's second wife, Jeanine, was in attendance that March day in 2003. Not wanting to worry her, Pincay somehow got to his feet, told the ambulance personnel he was OK, other than a huge pain in his neck, and eventually got a medical official who was not an M.D., to let him go home. Diagnosis: Take some pain pills, rest and it'll be better in a day or so.

For four days, with no sleep, but with the usual jockey's testosterone battling reality, Pincay assured everybody he was all right. Despite the constant pain, he got on his wooden horse at home and worked out. He walked a lap around the Rose Bowl. He even set out on the third morning to work a horse, and would have done so had not the trainer called off the work because the horse didn't need it.

Finally, after getting a massage in his neck area and getting no relief and after running into fellow jockey Alex Solis and hearing how Solis just had a physical and the doctor had discovered, in an X-ray Solis had never bothered to have, a broken neck he'd had for years, Pincay decided to succumb to Jeanine's wishes and go to a doctor.

He knew something was horribly wrong when the doctor returned from the X-ray reading and told him not to move.

"He said I was the luckiest man alive," Pincay said.

He had suffered three broken bones in his neck. One of the breaks is called a "hangman's fracture," the bone that breaks when people die by hanging.

Immediately, they put a surgical halo on his head, which consists of screws drilled into his head and connected to rods that hold his neck in place. He was in that for about two months, and the only thing as painful as having it put on was having it taken off.

Eventually, doctors told him that he should, by all rights, be paralyzed; that the only reason he wasn't spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair was that the muscles in his neck were so strong they somehow held the bones in place and that, had he waited one more day to get to the hospital, the swelling that came with the injury, and also held the bones in place, would have gone down enough for any slight movement to cause paralysis.

Then, they told him he should never ride again, a recommendation he rejected until family and friends, and a phone call from Bill Shoemaker, convinced Pincay of the reality.

Now, it is six years later and he has become one of his sport's best ambassadors. He is to horse racing what Wayne Gretzky is to hockey, Bart Starr is to football, Bill Russell is to basketball. He has a book out called "Anatomy of a Winner," which would have been more aptly named "Profiles in Courage" if that Kennedy fellow hadn't already taken that title.

As horse racing continues to struggle, partly because it sends all its equine stars to the breeding barn too early, it ought to consider that it has a star of the human variety perfectly qualified to carry a baton.

Meet Laffit Pincay Jr., who could be horse racing's walking, talking billboard.

Thank God.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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