Sunday, April 15, 2001

Second-hand horse comes up first

        LEXINGTON — Laffit Pincay returns to the Kentucky Derby on a hand-me-down horse. His pride, happily, doesn't obstruct his pragmatism.

        The winningest rider in the history of horseflesh retains a refreshing humility. He was able to ride Millennium Wind in Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes only because Chris McCarron had jilted the mahogany colt, but he regarded his victory not as vindication, but as a gift deserving of gratitude.

        “It's great to ride a horse like this,” Pincay said. “I thought for a while I'd never get to ride another one like him. It's kind of like a dream come true.”

        Nearing the finish line of a fabulous career, the 54-year-old Pincay is experiencing a remarkable
renaissance. He has won more than $3 million in purses this year, stands to earn his first winter-spring title at Santa Anita since 1989, and reached the winner's circle at Keeneland Saturday with silks so clean they could have just emerged from the spin cycle.

Effortless run

        Millennium Wind won the Blue Grass wire to wire and pulling away, finishing 5 1/4 lengths in front of runner-up Songandaprayer and fairly toying with a talented field. Though Point Given remains the Derby favorite based on his dynamic performance in the Santa Anita Derby, no horse will advance to Churchill Downs with a more effortless effort than Millennium Wind gave Saturday.

        “He was doing it so easy coming down the stretch, I knew he was going to be tough to beat,” said Pincay, who was riding the horse in competition for the first time. “There were a couple of times when he completely quit running on me. He put his ears back, and I said: "Oh, my God. Don't do this to me now.' I kept after him and all of a sudden he changed his mind and started to run again. Then he did it a second time.”

        Pincay finally prodded his colt to the finish for the 9,114th victory of his career, but he weighed in afterward wearing the ecstatic expression of a rookie rider following a big breakthrough. He has not had a Derby mount since 1994, and has only won it once (Swale, 1984).

        Getting another run at the roses at this stage of his life is something to be savored.

        “I was really high on this horse the first time I worked him,” Pincay said, “because I haven't worked a horse as fast as as good as he is in a long time. ... He could be a great horse in the future, he's got so much natural ability.”

Triple Crown dreams

        Though he has ridden thousands of horses since arriving from Panama in 1966, the seasoned Pincay is still susceptible to surprise. In his brief experience with Millennium Wind, his mental clock malfunctions. He tends to think the colt is running slower than his actual speed. Since the horse has raced only five times, Pincay suspects he is only scratching its surface.

        “He could be any kind of horse,” Pincay said. “He could be a great horse in the future.”

        If he is a great horse three weeks hence, Pincay could become the second-oldest rider to win the Derby. Bill Shoemaker also was 54 when he won with Ferdinand in 1986, but he was a few months older than Pincay is now.

        “I had a dream maybe two or three months ago that Laffit rode this horse and won the Triple Crown,” trainer David Hofmans said Saturday. “And then retired.”

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