Cordero, Angel Tomas, Jr.
CORDERO, Angel Tomas, Jr.
(b. 8 November 1942 in Santurce, Puerto Rico), Thoroughbred jockey, trainer, and owner who rode to more than 7,000 career wins, including three Kentucky Derby victories, and amassed a multimillion-dollar personal fortune.
Cordero is the son of Angel T. Cordero, Sr., and Mercedes (Hernandez) Cordero. It is no surprise that he gravitated toward a career in the saddle, as his mother was the daughter of a jockey and a trainer, and he had some twenty uncles and cousins who also rode professionally. Cordero was first put on the back of a horse at the tender age of five months. By the time he was three years old he "rode" an old saddle on a fence and was adept at transferring his switch from one hand to the other.
Cordero studied at the Institute of Puerto Rico, otherwise known as Puerto Rico Junior College of Accounting. Although two years younger than Braulio Baeza (eventu-ally a five-time top-earning jockey, elected to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1976), Cordero shared many similarities with his Panamanian rival. Cordero, like Baeza, grew up in a subculture where the critical elements of daily life were horses, tracks, and racing.
He rode his first winner on 15 June 1960 at age eighteen, astride Celador at El Commandante Race Track in Puerto Rico. It would be easy to describe Cordero's long and successful career as simply a rags-to-riches saga. In reality, however, Cordero confronted a series of vagaries and challenges both physical and professional. For example, when he first raced in the United States in 1962 he was not able to replicate his successes in Puerto Rico. He rode regularly on a variety of New York State tracks—Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Saratoga—but he was a dismal failure. He recalls the experiences as disastrous. He had no networking skills with which to negotiate and facilitate contact with trainers and owners, and his English-language skills were negligible. After a few months he packed up his silks, saddles, and whips and returned home. In 1965 he was prevailed upon by fellow Puerto Rican jockey Eddie Belmonte to try again and thus returned to the New York racing scene. In a 1975 New York Times interview Cordero spelled out the tough-minded credo that was instrumental in seeing him survive his American apprenticeship: "You work, work, work and wait for something to happen."
This philosophy was critical to his eventual success because, while many riders sat out days when racing conditions were appalling, Cordero made it a point of honor to ride despite adverse elements or troubling health problems. In 1968 Cordero spoke of battling on and continuing to think competitively despite nose operations, an ankle injury, suspected pneumonia, racing handicaps, and seventy days of racing suspensions for overly aggressive riding.
At the end of the 1966 season Cordero was a top-ten rider at Aqueduct. A year later he was New York's most successful jockey of all time, with 277 wins. In 1968 he was North America's most successful jockey, with 345 wins. He bested his nearest rival, Alvaro Pineda, by a generous margin of sixteen victories.
In 1969 Cordero was again New York's premier jockey. One year later, in 1970, he finished in third place. Over the next four years he was in the runner-up position. Certainly his eager, enthusiastic—some would say excessively bois-terous—racing action affected his racing fortunes. He was repeatedly hauled in front of the stewards and his reputation was increasingly that of a brilliant but dangerously aggressive rider.
The Kentucky Derby can claim to be the world's most famous horse race. In terms of prestige and equestrian history it occupies a hallowed place. Cordero experienced one of the low points of his career when in May 1973 the racing authorities of Aqueduct gave him a ten-day racing suspension. This meant that he could not ride his Derby mount My Gallant, which was a pre-race favorite. Moreover, his earlier career Derby mounts on Verbatim (1968), Corn Off the Cob (1970), and Jim French (1971) had all been unsuccessful. However, in the hundredth running of the Kentucky Derby, on 4 May 1974, Cordero, on Cannonade and clearly firing on all six cylinders, defeated Hudson County by two-and-one-quarter lengths. Commentators noted Cordero's facility at getting the best out of Cannonade by whipping the horse with a right-handed, and then a left-handed, technique. This, of course, was a skill taught to him when he was literally an infant.
During the 1970s Cordero maintained a successful profile despite his perennial problem of incurring racing suspensions. In 1974 he and Laffit Pincay became the first two jockeys to win more than $4 million in one racing season. A year later Cordero moved out of the sports pages and onto the front pages of major North American newspapers as a result of one sensational day of racing—12 March 1975—in which he won six races. Racing handicapper Pat Lynch helped explain the athletic genius of the extraordinary Puerto Rican rider, described as "a rider in full flower.… He's exuberant.… He doesn't walk, he jogs.… He bounces. Everything about the guy is quick, quick."
Toward the end of his career Cordero still maintained a grueling racing schedule. In 1991, at age forty-nine, he started 1,341 races, earning 238 first places, 212 seconds, 186 thirds, and $9,383,904. By the end of 1992 he had amassed 7,057 wins in 38,646 racing starts. His career earnings reached phenomenal proportions even in an era when baseball, basketball, football, tennis, and golf stars became multimillionaires. Cordero's career earnings have amounted to a staggering $164,571,847.
Cordero was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame on 11 August 1988, one year after becoming the sixth jockey to ride 6,000 winners. He attained this feat while guiding Lost Kitty to a first place at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, New Jersey. On 17 October 1991 Cordero joined Willie Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay, Jr., as the only Thoroughbred jockeys to have achieved 7,000 wins. When asked which of his victories had meant the most to him and why, Cordero replied, "The Kentucky Derby—winning it three times was special. It's everybody's dream." Cordero won aboard Cannonade in 1974, Bold Forbes in 1976, and Spend a Buck in 1985.
On 12 January 1992 Cordero, no stranger to serious injury, tumbled at the Aqueduct Race Track in Jamaica, New York. He suffered a broken elbow, three smashed ribs, and a damaged spleen. He consequently retired from Thoroughbred racing to seek a trainer's license. His first triumph in this role came as trainer of Puchinito on 13 June 1992 at Belmont Park Race Track in Elmont, New York.
Cordero was genetically blessed in being comfortable at his racing weight. Most trainers expect jockeys to weigh 113 or 114 pounds. This results in the vast majority of jockeys having to strenuously diet, use diuretics, and fast. In Cordero's case, his five-foot, three-inch frame and his metabolism kept him comfortably under the 113-pound ceiling.
Cordero and his first wife, Santa, had two children before their divorce. Cordero's second wife, Marjorie, a former jockey and trainer, had one son and one daughter. Marjorie was killed by a hit-and-run driver in January 2001.
Cordero won acclaim for his fiercely competitive intensity and risk-taking. His numerous honors include earning Eclipse Awards as Jockey of the Year in 1982 and 1983 and being the leading jockey in earnings for 1976, 1982, and 1983. He remains a folk hero for the New York Puerto Rican community and was featured in the pop song "Cordero y Belmonte" by the Latino singer Ismael Rivera. Cordero's Hall of Fame citation and plaque opens with the words: "A fierce competitor, and a popular athlete with the racing public."
Current Biography (1975) contains a thorough narrative on Cordero's early years, including a series of evocative and illuminating excerpts from the New York Post, the New York Times, Newsday, and Sport. Short biographies are in the Biographical Dictionary of American Sports (1995) and the Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States (2000). Tom Gilcoyne, an archival assistant at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, provides a useful Hall of Fame mini-biography of Cordero.
Scott A. G. M. Crawford