Early last Saturday afternoon, before the 108th running of the Belmont Stakes, Angel Cordero Jr. made his way through the bucolic picnic area located behind the grandstand at New York's Belmont Park. He wore a magnificent, sharply pressed black suit with a bright red vest, the racing colors of the horse he would ride, Bold Forbes. As Cordero moved toward the bandstand at the back of the park, people sprawling on blankets and picnicking at tables rose, the word of his arrival passing among them as swiftly as if it were being transmitted by bongo drums. Cordero climbed on the bandstand from which the orchestra of Tito Puente had been delivering the riffs and beats of Latin America, and the crowd, which was largely Spanish-speaking, began to cheer. The flashy Puerto Rican rider is a hero to Latins in New York and his broad grin appears on billboards advertising beer in Manhattan's barrios. Now Cordero's hands shot out, his fingers forming Vs, and there was lusty applause. It was just a dress rehearsal for what was to come.
Hours later, as Cordero crossed the finish line at the end of the mile-and-a-half race, having brilliantly orchestrated the triumph of his colt, he stood high in the stirrups and waved joyously. By the time he and his horse returned to the stands, which were teeming with 57,519 people, the Latin fans were in a frenzy. Wearers of red T shirts stamped "Bold Forbes" danced and hugged each other, red, white, and blue Puerto Rican flags waved feverishly. Cordero stuck his whip in his teeth, dropped the colt's reins and again made the victory sign.
Over and over he shouted, "Viva, viva, viva" as he walked the colt through Victory Lane. The Triple Crown races now concluded, Cordero, Bold Forbes and Trainer Laz Barrera are surely the conquistadores, having won two of the three legs—and they were greeted as such last Saturday. Never mind that at the end of the Belmont, the toughest of the classics, Bold Forbes resembled a tired, drunken man trying to beat the dawn home. Defeating McKenzie Bridge by a desperate neck he managed to stay in front all the way, an accomplishment matched only by Secretariat and Riva Ridge in the past 27 years. Bold Forbes not only ran far, he also ran very wide because of a quirk of temperament. And he ran on three and a half feet because part of his right rear hoof had to be cut away after being cracked earlier in the year. In mid-March the chances of Bold Forbes getting to the Kentucky Derby seemed bleak indeed, but in the last 12 weeks the small, game colt has won four races, finished third in the Preakness and earned $398,540.
The field for this year's Belmont swelled overnight from six horses to 11. Owners and trainers of colts of modest talent could not believe that the sprinting Bold Forbes would be able to carry his speed over the full distance. Earlier it had been announced that Honest Pleasure, the hero of winter racing, would not start and on Monday the Preakness winner, Elocutionist, was hurt and declared out of the race. So as the classic lost luster, it gained starters.
This was only the second time in the last 70 years that there were more starters entered in the Belmont than in the Derby. Of the nine horses in the 1976 Derby only Bold Forbes and Play the Red endured the hard grind from Kentucky to the Preakness in Maryland to New York. The pressures of running in the Triple Crown races are intense to man and horse.
For Bold Forbes, Barrera and Cordero the pressures were magnified by the trio's popularity with Latins everywhere. Had Bold Forbes won the Preakness there is no telling how many people might have been at Belmont to see him try for the Triple Crown, surely as many as the record 82,694 who showed up in 1971 when another Latin runner, Canonero II, was shooting for that prize.
On Friday, Laz Barrera was asked about the crowd of horses not the crowd of fans, but he did not seem worried. "People think that Bold Forbes will stop at a mile and a half," he said. "I don't think he will. Remember, he is on his home grounds now. He lives at Belmont and he trains at Belmont. Only once in his life has he ever raced at Belmont and that was in the Tremont last year and he won by five lengths. When we go to Aqueduct we have to ship. We shipped to Kentucky and then to Maryland. When he got injured in the Preakness, he returned home and things seemed normal to him again. We have galloped him two miles just like we did before the Derby.
"This thing has been a long grind for me and for him. I seem to have been on all the airplanes that ever climbed into the sky. I am a talkative man, but in the last six weeks it seems that I have talked more than I have in all my life. I am so tired I want to put my body down. People can say that Bold Forbes will not go a mile and a half. Let them talk. Let's wait until the race is run. But remember the fish: he only gets caught when he opens his mouth."
Of the 11 horses entered in the Belmont on Thursday, only two—Charleston and Best Laid Plans—seemed to have enough early speed to run with Bold Forbes. On Friday Charleston went lame and was scratched. And on Saturday Best Laid Plans did not challenge until midway in the race and then fell back. Both were breaks for Bold Forbes.
The colt pounced out of the gate onto the lead as Cordero moved him wide, almost to the middle of the track. Bold Forbes stayed out there, losing distance with each stride, but not losing ground to his opposition. Barrera had hoped Cordero would cover the first half-mile in "around 47 seconds "Angel did exactly that. Laz watched the race and kept looking at the times flash on the infield tote board. He was pleased when Bold Forbes got the six furlongs in 1:11[1/5] and the mile in 1:36. "At the end of the mile," Barrera said, "I knew that we could put the beans on the fire."
Getting them to the table, however, was no easy matter. At the top of the stretch Bold Forbes had a six-length lead. Suddenly it shrank as McKenzie Bridge and Great Contractor rolled up from behind. "If it had been a mile and a half and two jumps we might have lost," Barrera said later. "But it is a mile and a half without two jumps.
"Now that the Triple Crown races are over, I can reveal a secret. We found Bold Forbes could not be rated if he was allowed to get near the rail. He needs to see other horses to stay relaxed. We were careful to keep him off the fence in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and it worked except at Pimlico. Sure, he loses ground that way, but he can be rated to some degree. It is a matter of how he was trained as a young horse.
"People thought my secret was the blue suit I am wearing. I wore it to all of the Triple Crown races. But the suit is not all that lucky because it only won twice. The truth about the suit is that I have lost a lot of weight and it is the only suit that fits.
"I saw the big crowd and heard the Puerto Rican people screaming when Bold Forbes won the Belmont. I cried in the winner's circle because any man who wins the Belmont and does not cry is not a man. In 16 years of training in this country I had never won a $100,000 race. Now I have gotten lucky and won five of them in seven weeks. Bold Forbes will get a rest now until the Travers at Saratoga in August. He needs a rest and so do I. Bold Forbes has a heart as big as all heaven. And God, I have found out, is Latin."