Jockeys: When the toughest get going

Athletes: Linebackers and hockey players are not in the same league as these gutsy little guys.

May 19, 2000|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On Preakness Day -- or anytime there's big-time horse racing in this country -- take a moment to look out on the track during the post parade and know that you are gazing upon some of the greatest athletes in the world. Not the thoroughbreds. The men and women who ride them.

These athletes are known around the world as jockeys. Race riders is a more descriptive term, but whatever they are called, riding a 1,000-pound animal on a 2 1/2-pound saddle at speeds of more than 35 miles per hour in heavy traffic requires a combination of skill, conditioning, balance, split-second decision-making and, above all, sheer bravery that is probably unparalleled in sports.

Greatness in athletics is a subjective thing; and differences of opinion are, as the old saying goes, what make horse races. ESPN selected Michael Jordan as the greatest American athlete of the 20th century, yet in baseball, he hit .210 -- in the low minors. On that same, much-hyped, list of the supposed 100 best athletes of the century, no jockey is listed in the Top 50, although one racehorse -- Secretariat -- checked in at 35. Overall, three horses made it in the Top 100 -- Man O'War and Citation were the others -- but only two riders: Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro.

This was goofy.

The man who is arguably the greatest active athlete in the world today, race rider Laffit Pincay Jr., received no mention at all. Pincay has no mount in tomorrow's big race, which is a shame, because earlier this year he broke a record in his sport that made him horse racing's Pete Rose and Cal Ripken Jr. rolled into one.

In major league baseball, Ty Cobb's astounding career record of 4,191 career hits was once thought to be an unassailable mark of lifetime excellence. Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games played mark was considered an unreachable record for endurance.

As any baseball fan knows, both records were broken, by Rose and Ripken, respectively.

Well, in horse racing, Shoemaker owned a single record that combined Cobb's skill and Gehrig's endurance: Over four decades, he took a stunning 8,833 horses into the winner's circle. But last December, on a horse named Irish Nip, Pincay broke Shoe's record, and he did so in Southern California's toughest-in-the-world racing circuit. That day, Hollywood Park president Rick Baedeker presented Pincay with the keys to a '99 Porsche while noting that the Panamanian immigrant had accomplished "the final great sporting achievement of the 20th century."

"In terms of dedication," says California jockey agent Bob Meldahl, "he is the greatest rider -- the greatest athlete -- in the world."

Can this be true? Can any rider be considered worthy of such a title?

Legendary sportswriter Red Smith thought so. "If Bill Shoemaker were 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, he could beat anybody in any sport," Smith wrote 30 years ago. "Pound for pound he is the greatest living athlete."

Dr. Robert Kerlan, the famed California sports medicine doctor, also thought so, or rather, came to think so. After Kerlan, the team doctor for the old L.A. Rams, kept receiving banged-up jockeys as patients, he became curious as to why they seemed to recover from serious injuries so much faster than anyone else. He and a University of Texas researcher named Jack Wilmore undertook a study of 420 professional athletes, testing conditioning, reflexes, coordination and strength, and were astonished at the results. Jockeys graded higher than all other professional athletes.

"I [had] thought they were just riding an animal -- and the animal was doing all the work," Kerlan said. He learned how wrong he was. Instead, he calculated, each race a jockey rode was the equivalent -- for the rider -- of running an 800-meter race. Looked at this way, their legendary powers of recuperation were no mystery, for these riders were racing up to seven times a day, five or six days a week, 52 weeks a year. They had the lowest body fat of any athletes by far, and 80 percent of them could bench press more than their own body weight. These were perhaps the most finely conditioned athletes in the world, a discovery that helped usher in the era of year-round training.

The discipline they get on their own.

Pincay, for instance, arises at 6 a.m. each day and consumes a breakfast of a single piece of fruit. He spends the morning exercising horses or at the gym doing his regimen of stretching and aerobics. He then heads to whatever Southern California track is on the racing calendar. Lunch consists of a protein bar, which he supplements with vitamins. He then rides one-ton thoroughbreds all afternoon, sometimes up to seven races a day, then heads home. Dinner is a sparse helping of vegetables and a small portion of fish or chicken. Occasionally, Pincay will indulge himself with a piece of bread -- but never any butter. The total number of calories allowed is 850 a day, each day, every day of the year, so he can, in the parlance of the track, "make weight."

He is 53 years old.

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