When Angel Cordero Jr. started his riding career in New York in the early 1960’s, he was anything but an overnight success.
Despite showing promise in his native Puerto Rico, he attracted only an occasional mount. When he worked horses on frigid mornings, he did not wear a jacket and gloves. Others interpreted that as evidence of toughness. In reality, he yearned for protection from the biting cold. He could not afford it.
Cordero was constantly running out of money. He would return to Puerto Rico to generate income and then fly back to New York for another crack at that tough circuit. He was in that desperate circumstance again in 1965 when he asked Eddie Belmonte, his roommate and fellow jockey for a ride to a New York airport.
Belmonte, convinced that Cordero needed to persevere, responded to his request with a cutting remark. “Maybe you should go,” Belmonte told him, “because New York is for good riders only.”
The cutting words stung the young rider like a blow to his rib cage. “That hit me pretty good,” he said.
Cordero, the son of a jockey and trainer, hung in there better than before. He picked up clients such as Sam Cadellile, a trainer with a string of only seven horses. Cordero would groom them in exchange for an opportunity to ride them in races. When anyone asked him to work a horse in the morning, he was there.
Cordero began drawing attention through his ability to bring home long shots. He was literally hungry for wins and brought an immense desire to each assignment. “I rode to win,” he said. “I rode to win constantly.”
The more he succeeded with horses that did not figure to contend, the more he began to attract horses that showed far greater promise. He definitely knew what to do with them. He was on his way.
His national reputation soared when he won the Kentucky Derby twice in a span of three years. He first broke through with Cannonade in 1974. Two years later, he teamed with Bold Forbes to reach the winner’s circle in the Derby and Belmont Stakes. Spend A Buck provided his third Derby triumph, in 1985. He prevailed in the Preakness twice, with Codex in 1980 and Gate Dancer in 1984.
Cordero won four Breeders’ Cup races: the Distaff (1985), the Juvenile Fillies (1988) and the Sprint twice (1988 and 1989). He dominated the rider standings at Saratoga Race Course summer after summer. He earned three Eclipse Awards as outstanding jockey in North America (1982, 1983, 1985) and ultimately was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1988.
Cordero’s career ended prematurely when he suffered severe injuries in a riding accident in 1992. But a new door would soon open for him when John Velazquez, another young rider from Puerto Rico, arrived in New York, needing a helping hand. Cordero provided that and soon became his agent.
Cordero wisely fostered a relationship with Todd Pletcher, whose training career was in its infancy. As Pletcher’s business grew until he became preeminent in his field, Velazquez’s career took off. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year.
“I’m proud of it that I took him as a kid and was able to help him and he’s the person he is,” Cordero said. “A lot of people have talent but don’t have class. He’s got both.”