The 1984 Kentucky Derby
He had not yet reached the age of forty, but Laffit Pincay, Jr. had just about done it all in Thoroughbred racing by the spring of 1984.
A member of the Hall of Fame in his late twenties, the Panamanian was also the owner of many riding titles, the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, several Eclipse Awards, thousands of victories, and the leader in earnings over multiple seasons. He simply towered over the sport as he continued on his path to being one of the greatest ever in the saddle.
But despite his sizable list of accomplishments, Pincay had one race in his sights: the Kentucky Derby.
He had been a part of the annual May classic for much of the last thirteen seasons, but it eluded him every time. His best finishes were a pair of seconds, notably aboard Sham in the 1973 renewal won by Secretariat. But Pincay, like every other jockey, wanted a victory in that race. It is safe to say that his career would not have been considered complete without it, so Pincay was certainly not going to give up in his pursuit of realizing that triumph under the Twin Spires.
For the 110th edition of the Kentucky Derby, Pincay landed the riding assignment on an Eastern-based horse named Swale. The two had teamed up twice before, winning the Florida Derby in late March and then taking second in the Lexington Stakes for trainer Woody Stephens. Swale was already a classy horse, having been a multiple graded stakes winner at two. Among his wins in 1983 were Grade I contests in the Futurity at Belmont and Young America Stakes at the Meadowlands. In addition, he took the Grade III Hutcheson in his sophomore debut at Gulfstream Park. The dark bay looked like he was bred for the mile and one-quarter Kentucky Derby, too. His sire was none other than 1977 Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew, so the bloodline was there for the first Saturday in May.
Bettors agreed with that assessment on Derby Day. Swale was among the principals for the race at just under 7-2. And many in the stands in Louisville that day along with those watching on television no doubt wondered if Pincay had finally found the horse to take him to that long-awaited victory that fellow greats like Arcaro, Longden and Shoemaker had tasted years before.
Starting from the auxiliary gate in post fifteen, Swale broke well and settled into third place before completing the first-quarter. A horse who always liked being in the early mix, Swale was on the outside of Bear Hunt, the Grade II Gotham Stakes champion. Leading the way down the straight was Althea, the previous year's champion juvenile filly who had beat the boys in the Grade I Arkansas Derby two weeks earlier. She led the field around the first turn and backstretch, setting moderate fractions of :23 2/5 and :47 2/5 for the opening half-mile. Swale took over second from Bear Hunt, and got to within a neck of the leader. Like so many of Swale's races, there was no rallying required as he and Pincay traveled down the backstretch. That meant not risking being blocked in the lane or having to swing several paths wide around the far turn or down the stretch. They were simply in a good position to take over if Althea faltered.
Several horses were actually within striking distance of the front as the field entered the far turn. Althea retained the lead for a few more seconds, but then Swale made his move. Looking confident, he began pulling away from Althea to emerge as the clear pacesetter at the quarter pole. Hugging the rail, Swale and Pincay saved ground as they saw the finish only seconds away.
Only three horses mounted a challenge as Fight Over, At the Threshold and Coax Me Chad battled for second. The latter won that brief fight, but the Kentucky Derby was out of reach. With Pincay asking for more, Swale had total control as he saved ground in the stretch. No one headed him in the final furlong, and he took the Derby handily by a couple of lengths in 2:02 2/5 seconds.
For Pincay, the wait was over. He had finally captured the Kentucky Derby after leaving Churchill Downs empty-handed for so many Mays. No longer would he have to wonder whether he would stand in the winner's circle in front of over 100,000 fans. No longer would he have to contemplate the possibility of not winning North America's most prestigious horse race. He was now Laffit Pincay, Jr., Kentucky Derby-winning jockey.
And the ride itself is a snapshot of Pincay's greatness in the irons. Like so many renewals, the 1984 Kentucky Derby lured a large field to the starting gate. Pincay was fully cognizant of Swale's running style, and getting into a good stalking or tracking trip was paramount given the volume of horses competing. He succeeded in establishing that early position, and then came the big move around the far turn.
That was the culmination of years of riding experience as well as Pincay's commitment to physical fitness. It all came together for the biggest win of the legendary rider's illustrious career.
Pincay never won another Kentucky Derby after 1984, but that is a mere footnote in what is one of the sport's most heralded careers. All anyone remembers is that the man who is unquestionably one of the all-time greatest jockeys is a Kentucky Derby winner.
On May 5, 1984, Pincay's life changed forever. He had made a plethora of trips to winner's circles since the 1960s, but this one was different. Winning the Run for the Roses is on a different level. It is the race everyone knows, whether they are a fan of Thoroughbred racing or just tune in during the Triple Crown season. It just carries an aura no other event in Thoroughbred racing can match. And now Pincay was woven into that aura.
But the race meant something more to the iconic reinsman. When he and Swale reached the wire together that spring day under the Twin Spires, Pincay's career became complete.