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Jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. Is Winning His Battle of the Bulge and Record Prize Money Too

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At times jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. isn’t sure it’s worth trying to keep a big man’s appetite captive in a 5’1″, 114-pound body. Consider his daily menu: Breakfast is unsalted nuts mixed with dry bran; lunch, a dehydrated food bar; dinner, more nuts and bran.

But Pincay has his reasons. Last year there were 8,183,535 of them, with a dollar sign in front—the record receipts of his 1,708 mounts in the most lucrative year any jockey has ever had. This year he is riding ahead of his 1979 pace, and his career winnings in 14 seasons now top $50 million (second only to Bill Shoemaker’s $74 million in 32 seasons). Pincay’s share is 10 percent plus bonuses.

Son of a celebrated Panamanian jockey, Laffit earned most of that while battling his own waistline. As a boy he was told he could never be a jockey because he was too big. He didn’t mind then because he wanted to be a baseball player. When that dream ended—there wasn’t much demand for 5’1″ second basemen—he began riding professionally and moved to the U.S. in 1966. In 1967 he was up to 120 pounds. He started taking diet pills: “At the beginning it was nothing. But I had to do it continuously. I started feeling leg and back cramps and dizziness.”

Though he was the leading jockey in the U.S. from 1970 through 1974, the pills made him so edgy he was suspended from racing four times in 1975 for brawling and careless riding. “If there was a fight in the jocks’ room,” recalls his California-born wife, Linda, 32, “I’d know Laffit was in the middle of it.”

The daughter of a horse breeder, Linda knows the problems of both racetrack and dinner plate firsthand. At 5’4″, she weighed 135 pounds when they were married in 1967; she has slimmed to 112 by skipping breakfast and lunch. “I liked women with meat,” says Pincay. “But now I like her skinny. I am used to the American look.”

To stay within the jockeys’ 116-pound maximum without sacrificing the strength that is his prime asset—competitor Angel Cordero calls him “the Incredible Hulk”—Pincay experimented with everything. “You name the diet,” Linda says, “and he tried it: lettuce only, sunflower seeds, fish, eggs, skipping meals, liquids only.” When a steam cabinet regimen didn’t help, he stayed on pills. Then, 21 months ago, Pincay, an avid reader of diet and nutrition books, invented his nut-bran system. He also gulps 15 to 20 kinds of vitamins daily. When he feels weak or his weight is down, Pincay will binge with a broiled turkey leg. Otherwise, he never cheats and doesn’t even dream about food anymore.

One witness to the diet’s efficacy is Darrel McHargue, the 1978 record winner. “Laffit seems a lot more congenial now,” says McHargue. “He’s not fighting with himself and not fighting with other people.”

Pincay, Linda, daughter Lisa, 10, and son Laffit III, 4, live in a four-bedroom house in an affluent Los Angeles suburb, Los Feliz Estates. (Neither child is interested in horses.) Laffit bought his mother a home in nearby Arcadia and brought his younger brother and sister to the U.S. Another sign of his prosperity is the custom-tailored suits he wears. “His taste is excellent now,” observes Linda, who broke Pincay of an early addiction to loud sportshirts.

The only major riding honor that has eluded Pincay so far is winning the Kentucky Derby. He’ll probably try again on May 3.

Pincay is 33 and plans to ride until he’s 40. “I love what I’m doing but I don’t want to be eating bran and nuts for the rest of my life,” he says. “There is more to life than being No. 1—like Cuban black beans, chicken with rice…”