A Wife's Sickness and Suicide Almost Forces a Champion Jockey Off the Winning Track

updated 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

After jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. won his first Kentucky Derby in 1984 (aboard Swale), he immediately phoned his wife to share the good news. Though Linda Pincay had accompanied her husband to 10 earlier Runs for the Roses, she had stayed in California this race, recovering from surgery for abdominal adhesions. "Does this mean I can't go with you anymore?" Linda asked. "Of course not," Pincay told her. "She was afraid that she'd brought me bad luck the other times," he explains.

Last week Linda was again absent from Churchill Downs, this time for a more tragic reason. On January 18, at the age of 37, she had put a gun to her head and shot herself. Linda died 48 hours later, leaving behind an anguished husband of 17 years and two stunned children: Lisa, 15, and Laf fit Pincay III, 9.

For the Panama-born jockey (whose 6,000-plus career victories put him second only to Willie Shoemaker), Linda's death meant more than the loss of a companion and confidante. The daughter of the late William Radkovich, a construction magnate and racehorse owner, Linda was always her husband's biggest booster. "At the track, he's the best. Away from the track, I can't imagine Laffit surviving without her," said a fellow jockey on the day of the shooting. At first neither could Pincay, as correspondent Suzanne Adelson found out when she visited the 38-year-old rider at his home in the Los Feliz section of L.A.

In the beginning right after she died, I felt like the bottom had fallen out of my life. I felt helpless, alone, like I'd been swallowed up by a hole. My wife and I had been a team. I remember I told a friend, "This is it for me. I can't go on."

It was Lisa who found her. She was concerned because the bedroom door was locked, and when she tried to talk to her mother, Linda said, "Just go away." When she heard the shot, she managed to break down the bedroom door and saw her mother lying on the floor. My son and a friend came running, but Lisa sent them back to my son's bedroom. The housekeeper stayed in the kitchen as Lisa called the paramedics and then phoned me at the track. Linda was scared of guns but she knew I kept a loaded .22 in the closet for protection.

Why she did it I suppose I'll never really know, but I guess it goes back to her health. Just before Thanksgiving in 1983, when I was away racing, she doubled up in pain and was rushed to the hospital. She spent 10 days there, but they didn't find anything, so they filled her up with antibiotics and sent her home. Then on December 29, my birthday, the whole thing came back again, and they found she'd had a ruptured appendix. Gangrene had set in, and she was in really bad shape. They operated four days later.

Linda was sick most of 1984 and never really the same again. She lost all interest in racing, in going to the track, and she was very depressed. She also was in constant pain, and no one could figure out why. They had to do two more surgeries because of adhesions from her first operation. Her doctor told me she should go to a psychiatrist, but Linda didn't want to hear about it. I told her it would take a long time to recuperate from what she had. But she would tell me, "I know I'm going to have to go back to the hospital for more surgery." She had had cesareans when our children were born, and she was terrified of surgery.

We had never gone out to dinner very much because of my weight problem. I can't drink or enjoy restaurant food, but she understood that and went along with it. When she wanted to go out to eat, she'd go with her friends. Now they were calling, trying to get her out of the house, but she used to tell me, "I don't enjoy anything anymore. Something is wrong with me." She just kept telling me she was a burden to everyone, and she was tired of it. Maybe she was trying to tell me something. Maybe that was a clue.

Also, she had this thing about dying young—perhaps because her mother died at an early age. Even before she got ill, she talked about it a lot. She never talked about suicide, though, and some weeks she was fine. Then she'd come down again. I think she had this fear that maybe she had something worse wrong with her than anyone was telling her. She was up and down, up and down.

The night before she shot herself, I discovered she'd been drinking heavily. We were sitting in the family room talking, but I noticed her speech wasn't all that clear. Later on I discovered a glass of vodka right there on the table by her. I got upset and told her it wasn't right that she drank when she took those pain pills. The next morning I was still upset with her, but I didn't want to start anything so I just left for the track.

When Lisa called and said, "Mom shot herself," I don't think my mind wanted to accept that. When I got to the hospital, I was expecting the doctor to tell me she took some pills and that she'd be fine. That night, I was in shock. That was a bad night, a bad night. They gave me a shot so I could get to sleep, but I still couldn't sleep. I went on like that for about three nights.

Initially my kids took her death better than I did. They were really the ones who pulled me out of my tailspin. As the days went on, I talked to my daughter, and she did me a lot of good. I began to realize I'd been putting a lot of blame on myself. I was feeling guilt for what happened, and Lisa felt the same guilt. There was anger, too. I'd get mad at Linda for the wasting of her life—then I would feel guilty at being angry.

I've been to a psychologist only once, but the children still go once a week to talk it out. I try to tell them Linda's suicide had nothing to do with them, that she loved them very much. I tell them their mother was sick and felt she was a burden to everyone—and that she felt this way because of all the sickness she had. They say they understand. I truly hope they do.

I know a lot of people said I was not going to ride again, and at one point they were probably right. Some told me to go away for a while to get over it. But I told them, "I'm always going to have to come back. I think the best thing for me is to start riding again." So two weeks after Linda died, I returned to the racetrack. It was hard at first, but the good thing was at night. I was so tired I didn't have time to think and would fall right to sleep. I've learned that, in this situation, it's best to keep busy.

As for the future, I will raise my kids as well as I possibly can. When this happened, in those earlier days, I'd think, "When I go home, there's nothing to look forward to. I won't see my wife. My wife isn't there." But then I realized I still had my kids. All this has made us closer, and I enjoy coming home these days. We realize that we're all three a team now.

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