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At age 65, former jockey Cordero finds his 'angel' in Velazquez

Oct 7, 2008 5:04 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

Angel Cordero Jr. considers himself lucky. At an age when some ex-jocks are collecting Social Security and sitting in a rocking chair or a wheelchair, Cordero is still working. Heís an exception in the sport of horse racing, a game Cordero says does not take care of its own as well as it might.

Other major sports kick retired athletes right from the playing field into the broadcast booth. No prior experience necessary. Do not Pass Go, do not Collect $200. Suddenly, they make more money than O.J. Simpsonís lawyers. Butchering grammar, syntax and the English language in general is readily forgiven. Itís a come as you are party in which their only required vocabulary is scant, the nucleus of which consists of, "Well, um, dude, like, you know, I mean, nice job, unbelievable and basically," and of course, the ever-popular but utterly meaningless verbal crutch, "Iíll tell you what." Peter Gammons canít start a sentence without first saying, "Well and I mean," and heís not even an ex-jock, but an award-winning writer.

Cordero, a fiercely competitive Hall of Fame rider who retired in 1992 with 7,057 victories, although he made an abbreviated "comeback" six years ago when he rode in one race at Philadelphia Park, now keeps the wolf away from the door by representing John Velazquez, one of the worldís premier jockeys, and by exercising horses for some of the nationís leading trainers.

Even though his mounts earned more than $164 million, of which he gleaned at least the standard 10 percent, today he might be panhandling outside the track kitchen if he didnít have Velazquez and trainers like Todd Pletcher, Bobby Frankel and Shug McGaughey giving him a leg up on his bills.

"Iíve been around a lot of retired baseball players, like Orlando Cepeda and Richie Allen," said Cordero, a native of Santurce, Puerto Rico, who turns 66 on Nov. 8. "People see them and want to be next to them to take pictures with them and talk to them. In our sport, when you retire, they want you out. They donít become stewards and never get a good job. In New York, Jorge Velazquez and Heliodoro Gustines were excellent riders and beautiful people, and they couldnít get a job, so itís pitiful for our sport."

The mere mention of Braulio Baezaís name brings Cordero springing to his soapbox.

It was Baeza, as classic and classy a rider as ever sat upon a horse, who, as assistant clerk of scales for the New York Racing Association, was indicted by a grand jury in 2004 on charges of allowing jockeys to ride over their assigned weights. Baeza, a member of racingís Hall of Fame and the rider of icons like Dr. Fager and Buckpasser, ultimately was exonerated in September of 2007, but not before spending countless sums of money he could ill afford in an effort to clear his good name.

"They really did something bad to him," Cordero said of Baeza, who recently moved from New York to West Virginia with his wife, Janis. "Braulio is one of the people I always looked up to since I first came to this country. He was probably one of the greatest riders Iíve ever seen. I was fortunate to be able to watch a lot of good riders before I started riding and then compete with some of them, and he was one of them.

"Iím sorry this sport didnít treat him the way it should have. He was a glory to our sport, a guy with a beautiful record, a beautiful person, and he never had a chance to become anything good, except assistant clerk of scales. That was the best they could do for him. They came out with all that só that they could never prove. It was in big letters when they charged him, then when he was exonerated, it was a little paragraph. Thatís how he was treated. When athletes in other sports retire, most of them are recognized as being as good as when they were playing."

Cordero will have a chance for a final fling on Oct. 18, when he competes in a Living Legends race at Santa Anita. Joining Cordero in a sprint race fans can bet on will be fellow Hall of Fame members Jerry Bailey, Pat Day, Sandy Hawley, Julie Krone, Chris McCarron, Jacinto Vasquez and Gary Stevens.

"Iím looking forward to it," Cordero said, his deep voice resonating as if from a well. "I work horses for Pletcher, Frankel, McGaughey and some others. I have no problem with weight. With clothes right now, I weigh 119, and I havenít even started to try and reduce. Itís my normal weight."

Cordero gave no quarter on the racetrack. His demeanor was several levels above competitive. Stevens called him "dirty." Whatever his degree of combatativeness, Cordero thrived on it.

"Some athletes are more competitive than others, but to be in a sport, in order to be good, you have to be competitive," he said. "Thatís how it is in any sport you pick. To do your best, you have to be competitive, and thatís the way it was for me."

Now, he has an alter ego in Velazquez, who recently rode his 4,000th career winner and whose mounts have earned some $11 million this year. At press time, he was recovering from a serious concussion suffered in a spill at Keeneland on opening day, Oct. 3. Corderoís experience as a rider isnít particularly favorable in his vocation as an agent.

"Iíve been representing John for nine years, but having been a rider doesnít necessarily give you an edge as an agent," Cordero said. "The only edge you have being an agent is having a good rider and riding for good people. Thereís nothing else you can do. If you donít have the horse, it doesnít matter how good your jockey is or how good your trainer is. The horse calls all the shots. Riding is not like boxing or baseball or football, where being good is something you have in your veins. A jockey depends on the horse, which is 95 percent of the outcome."

Meanwhile, Cordero is looking forward to visiting California and meeting with old cronies.

"Even though I have seen them once in a while, Iím very excited about being there," he said. "I have a lot of friends I havenít seen in a long, long time, so itís good to know I will spend some time with them. Laffit (Pincay Jr.) and I are very close, but I havenít seen him since last December. We went to dinner twice. I see Stevens once in a while, especially at Keeneland.

"Bailey I see, Hawley I saw early this year Ė I forgot where Ė but I remember I saw him. I havenít seen Julie in a long time. McCarron Iíve seen because one of his kids was working for Pletcher, and I went to McCarronís jockey school (in Kentucky) a few times."

Cordero was a world-class rider throughout his career, based primarily on the East Coast. In retrospect, he might have had a geographical change of heart.