Racing: Pincay poised to put the Shoe in the shade

An American legend is about to be eclipsed as the most successful jockey in history.
FOR TWO of the world's finest jockeys, tomorrow promises to be a date with history. Tony McCoy, who is on the brink of his 1,000th winner, is the one everyone knows about, the one whose picture will lead the racing pages if he can pass that personal milestone. Yet it is the other who would arguably deserve far greater credit, even though most British punters would struggle to pick him out of an identity parade.

Laffit Pincay jnr was riding winners 10 years before McCoy was born, and if he could steer home three more at Hollywood Park tomorrow to add to the 8,831 he already has to his name, he would become, as the Americans like to put it, the winning-most jockey in history.

When Willie "the Shoe" Shoemaker retired in 1990 after 41 years in the saddle, he had ridden 8,833 winners, a mark which many felt belonged in the same "unbreakable" category as Bob Beamon's long-jump record. Yet Beamon's mark was eventually passed, and now the Shoe, too, is to be eclipsed.

With 10 or more races on an average card, and a season which never really ends, American jockeys have many more opportunities to rack up a huge lifetime total than their European counterparts. Kieren Fallon, for instance, has ridden 200 winners in each of the last three seasons, but this is rightly seen as an immense achievement. The sums show, though, that he would need to reach a double-century in each of the next 35-odd seasons to begin to threaten Shoemaker's total.

Yet even so, Pincay's imminent overhaul of the man who was a fierce rival for many seasons is both a personal and professional triumph. He rode his first winner in his native Panama in 1964, when he was 17, Douglas- Home was the British Prime Minister, and Nelson Mandela was just beginning his life sentence. In the 36 years since, he has won the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes three years in a row and seven Breeders' Cup races, as well as winning the Eclipse Award for America's leading jockey five times, more than any other rider. He also produced his own version of Dettori Day at Santa Anita in 1987, when he won seven races in an afternoon.

But Pincay's career has been a much harder struggle than the bare numbers of winners and prize-money might imply. He stands just five feet and one inch tall, but his upper body is built like a linebacker's, and his weight has been a lifelong problem.

D Wayne Lukas, America's most successful trainer, once told a story of a plane trip from west coast to east in the seat next to Pincay. While Lukas tucked into the in-flight meal, Pincay just watched, until eventually he asked the stewardess for a cup of thin soup. The jockey drank a mouthful of soup, then reached for a packet of peanuts. He removed a single peanut, split it in two, and spent three minutes chewing one of the two halves. He then took another swig of soup. That, apparently, was breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It was a regime which was always likely to catch up with him. Two years ago, within sight of Shoemaker's record, Pincay found he was growing too weak to ride morning work, and as a result, the bookings for the afternoons started to dry up too. Only when he adopted a more generous, but still strictly calorie-conscious, diet of fish, chicken and fruit did the strength and opportunities return.

"I used to have a lot of pressure when I was younger and I was going for titles and fighting weight," Pincay said on Saturday, shortly after winning the $400,000 Hollywood Turf Cup. "There were days when I felt really good and there were days that I felt terrible. I have learned so much about myself and my body. I'm very relaxed and enjoying myself. When Shoe retired, I thought no one would even come close to that record, but I'm surprised how easy it has been for me."

At 52, Pincay has set no date for his retirement, saying only that he will continue to ride for as long as he enjoys it. By then, he will have set a fresh target for his colleagues, one which the likes of Pat Day (more than 7,600 wins) and Chris McCarron (6,800) may one day overhaul in their turn. For a few years yet, though, Pincay will be able to call himself the winning-most jockey, and even Shoemaker is pleased about that. "If it's going to be broken, there's no one better," the Shoe said recently. "There has never been any rider more dedicated to his profession."