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Dec 15, 2006

Through The Binoculars

By: JOHN PIESEN


First things first.

And that's congratulations to Russell Baze for breaking Laffit Pincay Jr.'s record for career winners.

Baze has been called unworthy in much of the media for breaking Pincay's record since he spent most of his career on the "wrong" side of the thoroughbred tracks. And there is some substance to that argument.

But much as I respect Pincay, I have to give Baze credit where credit is due. Riding 20 per cent winners over a period of three-plus decades is a monumental achievement. If you think riding winners is that simple, just ask Eddie Martin Jr., who needed three weeks at Aqueduct to ride the winner that put him at 3,000.

I had the pleasure and the privilege of covering Pincay in his prime. Maybe it was my prime too. Pound for pound, Laffit was the greatest rider I ever saw, but most of my memories of Laffit center around his pride and his temper.

Here are three examples -

In the 1978 Travers, a four-horse race, Pincay was subbing for the injured Steve Cauthen on Triple Crown winner Affirmed. The horse to beat of course was Alydar.

Going to the first turn, Angel Cordero Jr.. on Shake Shake Shake, nearly put Pincay over the inside fence. Pincay believed that Cordero deliberately did so in order to help his buddy, Jorge Velasquez, win the race on Alydar.

Nearing the end of the backstretch, Pincay, raging mad over Cordero's tactics, found a way to get even. He had Affirmed on the lead at this point, about three paths off the rail. When Velazquez tried to gun Aldyar inside of him, Pincay shut him off, and Alydar nearly went down.

Pincay went on to finish first on Affirmed, and Alydar was second. But as soon as Affirmed hit the wire, the stewards' inquiry went up, Jorge claimed foul, and several moments later, the numbers were reversed.

At the time, the printers were striking my newspaper, the New York Post, so I was covering  the race for a "strike" paper, the New York Press. It took what seemed a half-hour for this very green reporter to navigate through the 50,000-plus crowd from the press box roof to the jocks' room. When I did get there, I found security restraining Pincay from attacking Cordero.

During an interview with Pincay years later, I asked him "what was the worst he race he ever rode."

"The '78 Travers," he replied.

"No question."

Five years later, Pincay rode a horse named Caveat in the Kentucky Derby.

At the quarter-pole, Caveat was launching an eight-wide move from the back of the pack when he was shut off by a horse ridden by a young Alex Solis. Caveat, re-rallied to finish third to Sunny's Halo.

That should have been Laffit's first Kentucky Derby winner, an achievement he accomplished the next year on Swale.

Back in the jocks' room, I found Pincay screaming in Spanish at Solis, his countryman. And again he would have killed the kid if he hadn't been restrained.

As it developed, Solis and Pincay later became best friends, and Solis speaks of  Pincay as his hero and mentor.

Finally, there was an incident in the late '80s at Aqueduct.

In my stupidity, in a Through the Binoculars column, I took a gratuitous shot at Pincay for what I thought for blowing a cheap claimer with a poor ride.

The next morning  I got a call in the press box.

"Is this John Piesen?"

"Yes."

"John, this is Laffit Pincay. Can you do me a favor and come down to the film theater to watch a race with me?"

"Of course."

And so, Laffit Pincay Jr., the greatest jockey in the free world, took it upon himself to call yours truly to join him to watch a race the film in order to explain the reasons he did what he did.

After watching the movies, no surprise. I determined that Pincay was right, and Piesen was wrong, and penned an apology to Pincay in Binocs.

That was the day when I realized what a class act is Laffit Pincay Jr.

Not that I didn't already know.

Speaking of superstar jockeys, it appears that Tony Black's career is over at age 55..

Black, who has ridden 5,000-plus winners, and who is regarded as one of the great speed-riders of all time, like Baze, rode mostly at the Triple A level, notably Philadelphia Park, which he has ruled since the Carter Administration.

Black sustained serious back injuries in a recent spill at Philly Park, and has been advised by his doctors to hang 'em up. Here's hoping he does so, and here's hoping that he soon embarks on a second career as a racing official. He would make a terrific steward.

Racing can't afford to lose a Tony Black.

Speaking of Philly Park, here's an update on trainer John Servis, who, you may remember, in 2004, went from a Top Five trainer at that track to an international superstar -- courtesy of Smarty Jones.

Since Smarty Jones did some of  his best work at Oaklawn Park (winning the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby prior to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness), management of the Hot Springs, Ark., facility decided to name a new barn for Smarty Jones.

When the racing office last month offered Servis all the stalls he wanted in the Smarty Barn, Servis politely declined.

"I want to stay in my barn (the Vanlandingham)," Servis said, "...because I've had some good luck there."

(After Servis declined, trainers Bob Holthus and Stanley Roberts accepted invitations to use the Smarty barn.) 

In addition to Smarty Jones, multiple stakes-winners Rockport Harbor and Round Pond spent two winters quartered in the Vanlandingham barn.

Round Pond, who won the Breeders' Cup Distraff last month for new trainer Michael Matz, and is now the best older mare in training, will return to Oaklawn in April for the Apple Blossom Handicap.

The Apple Blossom incidentally remains the lone Grade 1 on the Oaklawn calendar inasmuch as the Graded Stakes Committee, in its infinite wisdom, recently decided that the Arkansas Derby should remain a Grade II.

Apparently, nobody told the committee that two of the last three Arkansas Derby winners answered to the names of Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex.

"Obviously," says new Oaklawn assistant GM David Longinotti, "we were hoping that the Arkansas Derby would be made a Grade 1. But every year that we develop a stronger field, the chances of that gets better and better."



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