The Sports Philosopher says: ‘IT PAYS TO GO TO THE GYM’

October 10, 2010
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      Yeah, that’s right, it pays to go to the gym.

      Go figure.   As a lifelong member of the society for the benevolent protection of the rights of the happily flabby and eternally soft, I’m as surprised as anyone.

Laffit still looks good at 63.

Laffit still looks good at 63.


      But first, to backtrack a bit, let me say that my original motive for joining a local health club was a noble one.   It wasn’t because I have any fantasies, at my age, of impressing the opposite sex with bulging biceps or manly, puffy pectorals.   No, I figured that if I worked out a bit, and maybe kept it up, maybe I could add another ten years to the back end of my life, ‘maybe even hang around long enough to play with my kid’s kids someday and teach them all about baseball and the Civil War and philosophy and horse racing and literary fiction vs. pulp fiction and Scrabble and archery and the English countryside and the Chicago Bears and chess….you know; cram their heads with all the stuff that matters to me.

      So I started going to the gym.   And then, just the other day, just the mere act of dragging of my soft, flabby carcass to the gym paid off for me in a way I never would have suspected, in a way that actually made me appreciate and humbly accept the joy of simply being alive.

      Because I got to meet one of my heroes.   And then actually talk with him.

      When it happened I was struggling with this particularly diabolical weight machine that works the latissimus dorsi muscles of the back—I believe they call it the “lat pull” machine—trying desperately (and somewhat courageously) to get through my three sets of lat pulls before my aging spine snapped in half, when I looked down right next to me at this little old Latino-looking guy with a surprisingly full head of thick black hair furiously working the sitting-down rowing machine like he was trying out for the Olympic kayak team or something.   The little guy was really pumping.   He had the energy of a cyborg.   My first reaction was wondering how can some little guy older than me and half my size toy with those heavy weights like they were plastic.   My second reaction came when I recognized him.

      It was Laffit Pincay.

      Oh my God, it’s Laffit Pincay! I said to myself, sure that I was right.   Almost immediately my thoughts tumbled carelessly out of my mouth, almost verbatim: “Oh my God, you’re Laffit Pincay!” I exclaimed.

      “Yes, I am,” he said with confidence, obviously just as aware as I that he was indeed Laffit Pincay.   We shook hands.

      I need to call a “time out” now, for all of you out there who don’t know who the hell Laffit Pincay is.   It’s not your fault.   A hundred years ago, before golf and tennis had grown up and before the NFL and NBA even existed, horse racing was pretty much tied with baseball as the most popular spectator sport in the land.   Top jockeys were heroes, great horses were legends.   But nowadays horse racing’s popularity is in the crapper, for a variety of reasons which I’ll gladly go into for you some other time.   So when I tell you that Mr. Laffit Pincay, Jr., of Los Angeles County, California, by way of Panama, is one of the ten best jockeys in American racing history, and that a very good case can be made that he is in fact thee best rider of all time, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

      Laffit looks great.   Hair still thick still black still there.   Muscles on top of muscles.   Not an ounce of fat on him.   “What are you now, Laffit, sixty-three?” I queried, knowing full well he was sixty-three, my brain having already pulled up his birth-date of December 29th, 1946, in that quirky, savant-like way that always convinces my friends I am so much smarter than I actually am.   Laffit’s eyes brightened.   “That’s right!” he replied, obviously confused yet delighted that a complete stranger in a local health club would know exactly how old he was.  

      Then I asked him what he was carrying nowadays.   He replied 130 pounds, which is only 13 pounds more than he carried on top of horses in his prime.   The legends are legion regarding Pincay’s battle with his weight; because despite the unfair power that comes with it, 117 pounds is simply too much weight for a jockey; for gaining even a pound or two more than that is guaranteed to cost him live mounts in the afternoon.   Accordingly, on long plane flights to ride in big races on the East Coast, Pincay used to make a whole meal of a peanut—a single solitary peanut—cutting it into quarters with a knife and fork and savoring each wee mouthful like it was filet mignon.   I assumed that after three-plus decades of self-denial he would let himself go and put on 30 or 40 pounds after he retired.   But he hasn’t.  (He must take the gym more seriously than I do….)

      I have to call another “time out”.   I want to make sure you grasp just how lofty a station Laffit Pincay is held in within racing circles.   Never mind the heroic daily battle with food that comes from being too big to be a jockey.   Let’s talk numbers.   Pincay won an astounding 9,530 races in his glistening 37-year career.   For a long time he held the record for most races ever won by any jockey anywhere in the world, earning him the coveted designation of “World’s Winningest Rider”.   That record was recently broken by dubious means (by a guy who shall remain nameless, who picked on minor-league racetracks).   Which means Pincay sort of reminds me of Henry Aaron, who for a long time held baseball’s all-time home run record, until it too was recently broken by dubious means (by a Steroid gulper who shall also remain nameless).   Which means for Laffit Pincay to happen to be working out next to me that day it was the horse-racing equivalent of having the similarly pure and similarly productive Hammerin’ Hank Aaron himself sit down next to me at that rowing machine.   And boy, was Laffit working that rowing machine….

      So naturally I didn’t want him to think I was a pussy.   Therefore, at this point in the conversation, your correspondent began to boldly attack the “abdominal crunch” machine….but after one or two crunches I stopped, realizing there was no point, and went over and got a relaxing drink of water.

      Instead, Laffit and I swapped racing yarns.   Sooooo much less taxing on the old bones than pumping iron!   He told me how difficult it is to be leading rider, all the hard work involved.   I told him I once wrote a whole novel about the world of the racetrack, wherein I mentioned his name a few times.   He told me which current jockeys reminded him of himself.   I told him of all my trips to Europe in the 80s to learn about big-time grass course racing.   “I was there at Santa Anita that day in ’87 when you won seven races,” I declared proudly, adding, “Who was that sluggish old gray horse you dragged across the wire for the 7th one? — was it Bedouin???”   Laffit’s eyes flashed fire again.   “That’s right!   Bedouin!” he said with incredulity, obviously amazed to be talking with some nerdy egghead who could remember the name of some cheap claimer who won a race 23 years ago.

      Then I asked him what he considered to be his greatest ride, the race where he believed he made the biggest difference between winning and losing.   “It was the Gold Cup with Affirmed”, he replied.   I remember the race well.   In 1979 Pincay was aboard Affirmed, the best horse he ever rode, going up against Spectacular Bid, the other great horse of that era, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in New York.   It was the only time these two turf giants ever raced against each other.  

      “In your opinion, what specifically did you do, that made it such a great ride?” I pressed him.

      “I kept Shoe outside!” he said with a wry smirk. 

      “Shoe” refers to Bill Shoemaker, Pincay’s great and far more famous rival, who was aboard Spectacular Bid that day, and “outside” refers to how he floated Shoemaker and ‘The Bid’ outside of Affirmed all the way around the track, causing The Bid to run a greater distance of ground and thus get a little tired in the process.   By the time the Shoe shifted his mount to the inside rail it was a case of too tired and too late, and Affirmed held on to win by less than a length.   Great ride.   Good stuff.

      (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the publisher of this very newspaper, who used to live in New York, once sent me a wonderful collage of pictures, programs, and tickets of that very race, mounted on a wooden plank, which I still have.   I didn’t want to freak him out any more than I already had.   He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.)

      Finally, I believe meeting Pincay was a very timely circumstance for me (and by extension, you) in one other important and delightfully coincidental way.   Because this month marks the premier of a long-overdue movie tribute to a true icon of horse racing, a motion picture chronicle of the career of the greatest racehorse of the last half-century, the immortal Secretariat.   The title of the movie is, not surprisingly, “Secretariat”.   Secretariat won racing’s “Triple Crown” way back when I was in high school, winning the Belmont Stakes by a staggering 31 lengths in world record time.   Pincay never rode Secretariat, but he did ride the ill-fated Sham, the poor little colt who valiantly and vainly chased Secretariat around the track in each of those three Triple Crown races and as a result was never the same and never raced again.   I saw “Secretariat” last week.  It’s good.  (Although the guy they got to play Pincay doesn’t look a thing like him.   And they misspelled his name in the credits.)

      But bad proof-reading aside, I recommend you use this column as an excuse to go and see “Secretariat”, and thereby transport yourself back to a bygone era, an era where and when we were not forced to make do with less substantial heroes……..back when horse racing was popular, when a gallon of gas was half a dollar, when heavy metal meant massive machines, not maniacal music….and back when we had giants the likes of Secretariat and Sham, of Affirmed and The Bid, and of Laffit Pincay.

      Anyway, I’m off to the gym to do a few lat pulls.   Who knows; maybe this time Hank Aaron will be there, pumping away on that rowing machine.   (Why not?  He’s only 76.)

meet….The Sports Philosopher!Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered fictioneer, and globetrotting horse racing aficionado—in no particular order.  Brad’sother recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’, in Arts & Entertainment under ‘Upon Further Review’, and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.   Brad has also written 4 novels and over 20 short-stories.   If you want to read the first chapter of the novel he wrote about Santa Anita Racetrack (the very novel he mentions in the above column, the one wherein Laffit Pincay is mentioned), just click the link below:






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