At the Albany airport, about 25 miles from here, Angel Cordero looked at his watch and frowned.
Cordero’s mother, arriving from Puerto Rico, was late. The second race at Saratoga, in which Cordero had his first mount of the day, was going to be sent off on time.
Regretfully, Cordero went to the phone and called the track’s clerk of scales, saying that he wouldn’t be able to make it.
Still no mother. Cordero had to leave the airport, because there were other horses to ride. “I had to stay as long as I could,” he said. “Because if I wasn’t there, she would have said that I didn’t love her.”
Cordero was caught between two loves, his mother and riding races--and winners--at Saratoga. Cordero has been the leading rider here for 11 straight years, starting in 1976. Because the racing calendar in New York and California runs virtually nonstop, from January through December, season riding titles are usually press-agent gimmicks, not even heeded by most jockeys. But Cordero’s streak is a legitimate accomplishment, and one not likely to be duplicated.
It may even be extended. After 12 days, the halfway mark of the Saratoga season, Cordero has won 10 races and trails Jose Santos by one in the standings. Santos, a 26-year-old Chilean, has been tagged as New York’s “next Cordero.”
That’s a sizable mantle to put on anybody. Cordero, who will be 45 in November, has completely recovered from a terrible spill, at Aqueduct 18 months ago. He suffered a broken leg and a severely cut liver, which threatened not just his career but his very life.
Yet, he is back and on top again. At the start of the month, the Daily Racing Form had him leading the national standings with $6 million in purses, which was $170,000 more than Santos and $213,000 more than Laffit Pincay.
Asked about his recovery, Cordero said: “I feel fine. If I go into a slump, it won’t be because I don’t feel good.”
Actually, Cordero has turned tail on a recent slump. After struggling at his home track, Belmont Park, Cordero got well last month at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, where he rode his 6,000th winner, a feat achieved previously only by Bill Shoemaker, Pincay and Johnny Longden.
And since Saratoga opened, Cordero has been clicking off victories as though by rote. He has been in the winner’s circle here more than 400 times since the 11-year streak started.
Cordero said that because of the short four-week season, a jockey has to be lucky to do what he has done at Saratoga, but that is understatement. The streak can’t be tied to the mineral waters, but it might have something to do with purpose. When trainer Woody Stephens failed to extend his streak in the Belmont Stakes this year, Saratoga immediately popped into Cordero’s mind and he said: “Woody didn’t get No. 6, but I’m going to get No. 12.”
To do so, though, Cordero needs to get more of his favored horses to the wire in time. Sadly, he ticked off the list of heavy favorites that he’s been unable to win with here: Broad Brush, Pine Tree Lane, Capote and Fiesta Gal.
“I looked at those four horses and thought for sure that I’d win with at least three of them,” Cordero said.
On Saturday, in the $1-million Travers Stakes, Cordero won’t have the luxury of riding even a near favorite. Cryptoclearance, fourth in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Preakness and second in the Belmont, will be the sixth choice, or worse, with Alysheba, Bet Twice, Temperate Sil, Java Gold and Polish Navy in the field.
The Travers has usually been a contradiction for Cordero, anyway. Despite owning the track, he has never had the down payment on Saratoga’s most prestigious race. Cordero was blanked 13 straight times--including a frustrating stretch of four straight seconds--before he won the Travers with Chief’s Crown in 1985.
“Many of my good 3-year-olds never even ran in the Travers,” Cordero said.
Indeed, Cordero’s five winners of Triple Crown races--Cannonade, Bold Forbes, Codex, Gate Dancer and Spend a Buck--weren’t around for the stake.
The first time Cordero rode at Saratoga, he saw the Travers--on television as a non-participant in the yard behind the jockeys’ room--but he wasn’t around for the finish of the season.
That was in 1962. Cordero, though not yet 20, had already established himself as a hotshot in Puerto Rico, and had ridden his first U.S. winner, a horse named Counterate, at Belmont Park just before Saratoga opened.
But no trainer would give him a chance here, where he was sharing a small room with two other jockeys for $75 a week. He had ridden only one horse by the end of the third week.
The night of the Travers, Cordero boarded the green bus that took fans back to New York. Then he went straight to the airport and flew home to Puerto Rico.
“I was good in Puerto Rico,” Cordero said. “I already owned a home and had my own car. But in New York there was nothing. I was living with my sister and owed her money. I had to go home.”
His trip to New York, however, resulted in Cordero’s losing most of his business in Puerto Rico. So in 1963, he was back in the United States, and despite a hell-for-leather style that put him on the ground with suspensions for almost as many days as he spent in the saddle, by 1967 he was New York’s leading rider.
Cordero’s horses have earned $116 million in purses, more than Shoemaker’s and second only to Pincay’s. Shoemaker, who will ride Temperate Sil in the Travers, was voted into racing’s Hall of Fame--just across the street from the track here--in 1958, and Pincay received the same honor in 1975. Cordero, however, has had to wait, because the voting rules have been changed so that a jockey must be retired for five years before he is eligible.
“I feel bad about this,” Cordero said. “The rules worked for years one way, and now they’ve been changed. But they haven’t been changed for trainers.
“They don’t have to wait, and they’re really in the same group as the jockeys. But I don’t like to think it’s discrimination.”
It may even be more shadowy than discrimination. It could be a coincidence, of course, but the Hall of Fame rules were changed in the wake of New York’s race-fixing scandals in the 1970s, when Cordero, Jorge Velasquez and Jacinto Vasquez, among others, were publicly linked to Tony Ciulla, a confessed race manipulator.
Vasquez was punished, banned from riding for a year, but nothing was proved about Cordero, who unsuccessfully asked for a retraction from Sports Illustrated, the magazine that broke the story. Cordero never sued.
The Ciulla affair is one of several sad, controversial chapters in Cordero’s career. The jockey likes to think that time has taken the sting out of the story. He once said, “I hope that it’s far down in the articles now instead of being up near the top.”
There is enough in Cordero’s personal life to keep any good soap opera in plot for a year. He is a grandfather--a daughter from his failed first marriage has children--but he and Marjorie Clayton, his live-in companion, also have a year-old daughter. Cordero and Clayton, a former jockey who now trains horses, will be moving soon from a house near Aqueduct to a home on Long Island. They are waiting for Cordero’s divorce to become final so they can get married.
Cordero’s oldest child, Tommy, has been a problem for years. He had a drug habit and has had trouble with the police.
“It is hard bringing up kids in this business,” Cordero said. “My son, I think he is finally getting himself straightened out. He is actually 24, but he seems more like 17.
“How things change. I can remember when I was in high school, back in Puerto Rico. There were six or seven guys that would sneak into the john to smoke cigarettes. I’m not talking about marijuana. They were just plain cigarettes. Now, in some schools, they smoke marijuana, and they don’t even have to be very sneaky about it.”
Cordero continued to think about growing up.
“There were a lot of guys back there,” he said. “None of them made it. It’s kind of like a barn full of horses, isn’t it? Fifty horses and maybe one will be a good one.”