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Hungry to ride

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Fashion models, to stay amply thin for Paris and New York runways, often exist on starvation diets, purging food in oft excruciating and nauseating quests of the bony bodies demanded by a glamorous, highly paid profession.

It can also be a guy thing, for minuscule men who ride racehorses, a job where worldly fame and extraordinary income are likewise reachable. It's especially so for Laffit Pincay Jr., winningest jockey ever (9,118 races) and the most noted flab fighter of them all.

At 54, Pincay weighs 117 pounds, mostly muscles, heart and brains. Saturday, the small wonder from Panama will ride Millennium Wind, attempting to become the second-oldest winning Kentucky Derby rider ever.

[AP photo]
Laffit Pincay Jr. has won 9,118 races, but he has struggled to keep his weight down.
"If it happens, I will celebrate by pigging out," Pincay said with a boyish chuckle. "I'm having a steak. Maybe 3 or 4 ounces." For Laffit, a silver-dollar-sized piece of meat is an all-he-can-eat buffet.

His father was a jock, but Pincay had no chance to learn the business from Laffit Sr., who left wife and children when Laffit was 5 or 6. They haven't spoken since the '80s.

Pincay won his only Derby in 1984 aboard Swale but, due to middle-age slumping, has missed the past six runnings. He finished second four times: Sham (1973), General Assembly (1979), Rumbo (1980) and Stephan's Odyssey (1985).

Laffit's reputation splintered in the mid-1990s in this game where each ride is an individual contract, and the industry began seeing him as yesterday's tumbling ace.

His comeback would be similarly dramatic. With remarkable resurgence, resurfacing as California's hottest rider, Pincay will get an AARP shot, his 20th ride in the Derby, with Millennium Wind.

A colt with a real chance.

"My drop-off was due almost entirely to fading energy," he said. "Heavy dieting and other things I did to keep weight down took a toll." He was bulimic 10 years.

"My body is one that should carry 145 to 150 pounds," Pincay said. "My bones aren't as small as most riders. Jockeys usually wear size 4 or 5 shoes. I'm a 7."

In this league, he's Bigfoot.

Food deprivation, getting by for most of the past 40 years on 850 daily calories, was not the only strain in Laffit's life. Twelve times his collarbone has been broken. In a 1998 fall, he busted four ribs.

That wasn't the worst.

A few months after his Derby win, Pincay's wife committed suicide. With chronic illnesses, she closed a bedroom door, their sons, Laffit III and Jean-Laffit, on the other side, and put a gun to her head. Laffit would remarry. He and Jeanine have a daughter.

Two-thirds of jocks strain to keep weight down in a sport where 125 pounds can mean you're a washed-up porker. Pincay's challenge is especially notable. His prison for a lifetime. Laffit's hands are bigger than a rider's should be. His chest not so small as Bill Shoemaker's or Angel Cordero's.

"On cross-country flights, I would refuse all meals except for peas," he said in a telephone interview before coming from California for the Derby. "Then I sliced the pea in half, making them last as long as possible. I've been known to take a single peanut and chop it up, make several bites."

Forever paying the price.

Five years ago, it seemed Pincay's career was fading, winning just 129 times, his lowest since 1966. His slide was worse in 1997 with 75 winners. Trainers began looking the other way. After a heroic generation of riding hot horses, he was on mudslingers in the back of the pack. Not much better in 1998, winning 104.

Pincay was wealthy. He could have retired, making some trips to barbecue joints and Mexican restaurants. But there was a professional burn in his soul to surpass Shoemaker (8,833) as history's most monumental winner.

He considered playing a less-imposing thoroughbred circuit, going to northern California or Washington. Just hoping to scrape together a few dozen more wins. "I wasn't riding like I should," he recalled. "I wasn't getting good horses. I just wanted to break Shoe's record and give it up."

Desperate for a diet adjustment, while still struggling to maintain his riding weight, Pincay tried fruit. "I had always been worried that it would involve too much sugar," he said. "But it worked. My energy improved. I felt strong again in the saddle."

In 1999, he was astonishingly reborn as Hollywood Park's leading rider. This year, he was No. 1 at Santa Anita, going against the most powerful of competition, including fellow Hall of Famer jocks Gary Stevens, Chris McCarron and Eddie Delahoussaye.

So he's back at the Kentucky Derby. Gobbling fruit. Feeling feisty at 54. Fantasizing about winning, becoming the oldest champ except for Shoemaker, who was 4 months older when he shockingly came home first in 1986 with Ferdinand.

For Laffit, a steak race.

* * *

KENTUCKY DERBY: 6:04 p.m. Saturday, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky., Ch. 8.

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