1999: Laffit Pincay's Crowning Achievement
In the closing weeks of the 1999 racing season, Laffit Pincay was inching closer to more than a milestone. It was the culmination of a journey that began in his native Panama when he was a young man. After winning races at Hipodromo Presidente Remon in the early stages of his career, Pincay came to Florida, and eventually settled in Southern California, where he became the dominant rider in the area for years.
More than thirty years later, with over 8,000 wins (including a Kentucky Derby and three Belmont Stakes), numerous riding titles, earnings titles and Eclipse Awards to his name, Pincay was on the verge of one more record.
Going back to 1970, Bill Shoemaker occupied the status of world's winningest jockey with 8,833 victories. The length of Shoe's reign was astounding, and a true indicator of his prowess as a jockey. Since his retirement in early 1990, no one had come close to his record. That is, until the autumn of 1999.
It was clear at Hollywood Park's autumn meeting that Pincay was going to pass his old friend in the standings. The question was when it would happen. People watched every day to see whether another win was on tap for Pincay, waiting for the inevitable moment when victory number 8,834 was recorded.
All eyes were on Hollywood Park on December 10th, 1999. Pincay had already drawn level with Shoe, and every race he was in was given extra attention. Booked to ride a few races on the program, he was winless going into the sixth race, a 1 1/16 mile maiden event on the turf. Aboard trainer Richard Mandella's Irish Nip for the contest, he drew the rail. Bettors made Irish Nip the 5-2 favorite, part of it no doubt sentimentality for Pincay (and souvenir tickets that would not be cashed in the event of a win).
Eleven horses and jockeys stood between Pincay's destiny, but he and Irish Nip left the gate well and cleared most of them in the early seconds of the race. By the time they were racing along the clubhouse turn, Irish Nip held a slim lead over longshot Laps N'Bounds. The two horses were side by side for much of the backstretch run, but each also led for a brief time. Meanwhile, Pincay looked ahead, his focus crystal clear. He had made it to the winners' circle thousands of times before that afternoon, but what was waiting for him in a few furlongs was nothing like he had ever experienced in his riding career.
In the far turn, Laps N'Bounds was not giving up. He continued to battle Irish Nip, getting his head in front for a few seconds. Joining the leading duo was Quiet One, who rallied on the outside. Irish Nip stayed along the rail, and Pincay urged him just before they completed the turn. They were back in front after a half-mile of 47.04 and six furlongs of 1:11.14. Less than two furlongs separated Pincay from the record. Quiet One and Laps N'Bounds battled behind him, the only two who had any kind of chance to prolong the new record.
After passing the eighth pole, Quiet One took over second, but Irish Nip and Pincay were finding more. Just before they reached the sixteenth pole, the crowd at Hollywood Park roared, fully aware the moment they had waited for was about to unfold. Quiet One was not going to beat Pincay and Irish Nip. No one was going to.
In the closing seconds of the race, Irish Nip moved with a determined stride. Pincay pumped the reins in the final yards, and they reached the finish more than a length agead of Quiet One and Kent Desormeaux.
It was a wire that Pincay was well familiar with, having won hundreds of races at Hollywood Park over the years. This time was different, however. Once Pincay made it to the wire, it was like reaching a new level, a new dimension. Only two jockeys had ever reached 8,000 wins: Pincay and Shoe. Now, no one was ahead of Pincay.
He pumped his fist a couple of times in the air in immediate celebration, the time for the distance 1:41.77.
In the winners' circle, Pincay gave a heartfelt thanks to Hollywood Park for their part in making the day special,the trainers who supported him, his agent, Fred Hooper, who gave Pincay his start in the United States, and his wife and family before being presented with a celebratory champagne bottle that had his name, his total wins to that point, and the words "World Record."
Pincay was by no means done after his 8,834th win. He raced until 2003, when he retired due to injury, but not before becoming the first rider to clear the 9,000 win mark. He finished with 9,530 in his Hall of Fame career.
What the fans saw at Hollywood Park on December 10th, 1999, was a once in a generation kind of event. Laffit Pincay was known for his commitment to fitness as well as his ability to be a money rider, having led the nation in earnings for several years. When he won the sixth race at Hollywood Park aboard Irish Nip, it symbolized what can be accomplished with dedication and hard work.
Told by a fellow rider how he and Shoemaker inspired jockeys during the winners' circle celebration, that moment summed up Laffit Pincay's career.
He was more than a rider. He was more than a champion. He was an icon.