With the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies upon us, there is no better time to hear from Laffit Pincay, Jr. He is without question one of the greatest jockeys to ever ride on an American Racetrack. His exploits on the turf are legendary. Laffit arrived here from Panama at the age of nineteen. He became a member of the Horse Racing Hall of Fame in less than a decade.
At age 28 he became the youngest jockey to enter the Hall.
In a career spanning 39 years, Laffit won 9,530 races. He won five Eclipse Awards as outstanding jockey of the year. Seven times he led the way in money earned. To list all of his accomplishments would require much more space than is available here.
The stage has been set. It’s time for the master’s comments on various aspects of his fabulous career.
I asked Laffit how difficult it was making the transition from riding in Panama to here in the states. He explained it this way.
He made his American debut at Arlington Park in Chicago. It was a difficult transition. Laffit was up against some very talented jockeys in his new surroundings. He had to adjust his riding style to compete with them. His time in Chicago was also an opportunity to study some of the great jockeys that came in from New York and California to ride in stakes races. Bill Shoemaker and Braulio Baeza were among them.
Laffit was honing his trade. It was a natural progression to head east to New York. He credits trainer Frank Martin with giving him good mounts to ride. He took advantage of the opportunity, quickly racking up a winning resume. He soon had the reputation of a go-to rider. With his career heading into high gear, he decided to try his luck on the lucrative Southern California circuit.
Laffit. How did the West Coast jockey’s riding styles differ from their East Coast counterparts? He described it this way.
In New York you could lay back and make a late move on the leaders. In California it was all speed. If you didn’t get out of the gate quickly and stay close to the pace it was nearly impossible to win a race. It didn’t take long for Laffit to make the adjustments to be successful on his new home turf. He soon became a very big star in the horse racing universe. For the next three decades Laffit would be on a collision course with the record books.
Great jockeys ride great horses. It’s as simple as that. When conversing with Laffit Pincay Jr., one topic that requires attention is his relationship with the all-time great Affirmed.
Laffit. When did you realize that Affirmed was a special horse with a potential for greatness.
The first time Laffit rode Affirmed, he worked him five furlongs at Hollywood Park. When the workout was over, he thought that he went in about 1:01. When told that he was clocked at 58.2, almost three seconds faster, he felt that Affirmed was destined for greatness.
No conversation concerning Laffit and Affirmed can be complete without discussing the 1978 Travers Stakes here at the Spa. It was the last of the legendary meetings between Affirmed and Alydar. The race drew all the hype surrounding a mega sporting event. The two heavyweights were about to settle old scores in a race for the ages. Let’s hear from Laffit as he describes the race.
Affirmed accelerated and took the lead on the outside of Shake Shake Shake midway down the backstretch. Laffit decided to maneuver Affirmed towards the rail to save ground. Alydar, simultaneously was making a move on the same path. Laffit didn’t realize that he was only a length and a half behind him. Alydar’s rider, Jorge Velasquez didn’t shout out that he was ranging up on Affirmed. When Jorge charged up to the inside of him, Alydar had nowhere to go and bounced off the rail. He lost several lengths before composing himself. Laffit had no idea that the mishap had occurred. He takes the blame for not realizing that Alydar was so close to him. If he did, he would have taken off, distancing himself from Alydar. Affirmed went on to win the race over his gallant adversary. When the stewards called for an inquiry, Affirmed was disqualified and Alydar was declared the winner. Laffit had a very difficult time dealing with the outcome. It affected him to the point that he had no desire to compete the day after the tarnished event. He considers it to be the worst afternoon of his career. Laffit also stated that Alydar may have made it close if the race was free of problems. He also is highly doubtful that he could have won it. Affirmed always had something left in the tank. That little extra to get the job done.
With the Hall of Fame induction ceremony on tap this week, I asked him what it meant to be a top echelon member.
Laffit considers it a great honor to be a member of the Hall of Fame. He says that it is something that requires hard work and perseverance. He is very proud of that achievement.
Who do you believe should be enshrined in the Hall that has been overlooked from your era?
Laffit is very high on Cash Asmussen. He says that he had all the skills that mold a great rider. He proved that both here and then abroad on the racecourses of France. He hopes that someday soon Cash will get a well-deserved welcome to the Hall. Another jockey that Laffit has the highest regard for is George Chavez. He hopes that someday “Chop Chop,” as he was nicknamed will get the nod.
I also wanted to know who he considers the best jockeys on today’s scene. He said without hesitation that he is very impressed with the Ortiz brothers. Luis Saez also quickly came to mind. Laffit then mentioned Joel Rosario. He is as good as you will ever see.
I asked him as a super achiever how did you keep your skills at an optimum level. Laffit stated that a diet of fruits, vegetables and nuts gave him the strength to compete at the highest level as he got older. It sounds like a good lesson for all of us.
I reached out to Saratoga native Vince De Gregory and Laffit’s agent in the 1970s to give us his thoughts on what made Laffit a great jockey.
Vince credits Laffit’s drive and determination as the catalyst for his massive success. He fought weight problems throughout his career. Vince says that Laffit needed to lose between three and five pounds daily to compete with his lighter rivals. His morning routine included a 6:30 a.m. appointment in the sauna. Then he would run a mile around the racetrack turf course in a rubber suit. If he needed to lose more weight, it was time to hit the hotbox in the Jockey Room to shed more.
His fellow jockeys were in awe of his willpower and dedication. Vince, an agent for nine Hall of Fame jockeys, stated that he doesn’t know of any other jockey that worked as hard as Laffit to keep his weight at a competitive level. Despite his intense morning routine, Lafitt still had incredible strength when it came time for the races.
Thanks to Laffit and Vince, and kudos to my brother Pat and Laffit Pincay III. Their chance meeting at Mark Thomas Apparel made this interview possible.