The boy's name is Harry Vega. He's only 18 and diminutive by any standards—at 4'11", 98 pounds, small even for a jockey. Save for a roué's mustache, he still looks the child, with a face that would turn the heads of Menudo fans. "He's just gorgeous," says Lauren Ayoub, 24, a woman jockey at Aqueduct racetrack.
For most of the past four years, Harry has lived with the Corderos, Angel and Santa and their two children, Tommy and Merly, in their modest red-brick house in Queens. The Cordero house is located between Aqueduct and Belmont Park; Santa calls it "a Spanish hotel." Lauren, like Harry, has recently been living there. Jorge Velasquez stayed with the Corderos for months when he first came up from Panama, by way of New Jersey, in the '60s. Besides jockeys, the Corderos regularly put up agents and stable hands, relatives and trainers, anyone from the backstretch, that curious society in which the gentry and the proletariat rub so close and so wrong.
But, surely, no one in the stream of guests to Casa Cordero ever meant so much to the host as Vega, who arrived there with his mother when he was 13, a child in every way, though brave enough, it seemed, to want to ride a racehorse. Vega's father had faded from his life, and his mother has since returned to Puerto Rico, and so the Corderos have become his family. Riding has become his life.
A couple of years ago Cordero sent Vega to a farm near Lexington, Ky., where Cordero's friend Oscar Dishman Jr. taught the boy to ride. Last summer a trainer at Hazel Park in Detroit took Vega by the heel and, for the first time, tossed him into a saddle when the paddock judge cried, "Riders up!" A month later, on Oct. 11, Harry broke his maiden at Hazel Park, and Cordero bade Vega come back to the house in Queens so Cordero could give him everything this side of genes. The Corderos are a racing family, but Angel's only son, Tommy, is too big to be a jockey. Instead, he's a jockeys' agent.
April 23, 1984
Nights, Harry would sit with Cordero in the trophy room, watching films of races, talking riding, talking horses, talking horse people, talking Anglos. Harry would listen as the old jock instructed him, encouraged him, corrected him, bringing him along, shaping a future for him. After a while, Cordero even got Tommy to take the boy's book—to be his agent. Someday, Cordero thought, Harry could be a real race rider. Harry was already a rider, but someday he could be a race rider, like Cordero, the best of that breed.
In the Puerto Rico racing encyclopedia, a whole page is required to list all the jockeys with the surname of Cordero, and there's also a long list of riders named Hernandez, which is Cordero's mother's maiden name. In Spanish cultures the maternal name is usually appended to the surname, but Angel Tómas Cordero Jr. wanted to be known by his father's name. And even today, a decade after Angel Cordero Sr.'s death, his son retains the Jr., which lengthens his name just a hair too much for a racetrack program, so he must be listed not in capitals but in uppercase and lowercase:
Junior is also what Cordero's friends most often call him. So does Santa, who's so named because she was born on Good Friday (Viernes santo). But when Santa or Spanish-speaking acquaintances refer to Cordero by his given name, it is always as Angel, spoken as Gene Autry says the word and never as On-hell, which is the Spanish pronunciation and the name Cordero grew up hearing in the wooden house where the family lived next to the Las Monjas track in San Juan. Like a vaudevillian's child born in a trunk, Junior didn't understand until he went off to school that a world outside of racing existed.
Angel Sr. never pretended to his son that racing was glamorous. The father had ventured onto the New England circuit in the '40s, without success. Junior can recall his father visiting him in New York shortly after Angel Jr. began to make a mark there, in the '60s. They were on the backside at Belmont one morning when a horse came galloping by, with a wizened old Hispanic riding. Junior was struck by the old man's face. "Poppy," he said, "he looks just like you."
"He should," his father replied. "He's your grandfather." That Cordero, whom Angel Jr. had never met, was 70 and still exercising horses.
The father never pushed his son to be a jockey; instead, he pointedly questioned Junior's manhood and encouraged him to stay in school and become a doctor. The first pony Junior had was a skinny old nag that he named Liberace because his ribs stuck out like piano keys. But he fed the pony so well that Liberace grew strong, and the little boy grew fearful of him—so his father sold him, which made Junior cry.
A few months before he turned 18, Cordero was riding at San Juan's El Comandante track when he came round a turn in the pack and there was a spill in front of him; the horses and jockeys started tumbling, like so much popcorn. Cordero was the luckiest of the riders who fell; a horse stepped on his helmet, cutting his forehead. Four other jockeys were seriously injured. One had a broken neck. Cordero shivered at the prospect of getting back up, and in the next two races, he took his horse safely wide of the field.
After that, his father stormed into the jocks' room and grabbed Junior by the silks, as you might a stable cat by the scruff of the neck. "¬°Tu no va ser jinete màs porque tu tienes miedo!" he screamed. "You ain't gonna ride no more 'cause you're scared!" And then Angel Sr. personally took his boy off the rest of his mounts and sent him home. For four days Junior brooded, pondering his courage, until one morning he returned to the track and said he was ready to ride again. Before long, other riders were castigating him for riding so dangerously, but Cordero only laughed at them. One day he took a huge horse on the lead, and he had too much animal at the first turn. Out of control, he tried to pull the horse around, but the horse crossed his forelegs, broke one and threw his jockey. Cordero was kicked along for a full furlong, first one horse's hooves picking him up and dribbling him, then another's. He broke two ribs and got a U stamped on his back where a horse stepped on him, but he came back soon enough. No one has ever seen him scared again.
Yet there is an ambivalence to this little man. Cordero is the heart of every jockeys' room he enters, a walking fiesta, but it's been suggested that he'll try to unseat other jocks—drop them, in racetrack vernacular. And while he is the consummate horseman, a trainer in silks, he has been accused of endangering horses if it served his purpose. He is the happiest of men, and his house is a racing salon, but yet, says a trainer who uses him often, "The day Junior stops riding he'll have to pay to get in, because then he'll find he ain't got a friend here." Cordero is respected for riding every race, no matter how cheap, all out, yet he was fingered in a massive race-fixing scheme. Some fans think that he's worse than a bum, that he's a thief. Last year he made more than $1 million, and in both 1982 and '83 he won the Eclipse Award as the finest jockey in the land, but he still looks bitterly upon American racing as a snotty patrician sport that sneers at him as "the little colored kid." Cordero never merely rides to win, he rides to beat.
Cordero isn't like Wayne Gretzky, say, or Martina Navratilova, who by sheer ability tower over their rivals. No, Cordero isn't just an athlete; he is a blend of talent and personality woven into a presence that dominates every scene he appears in. If it's a big race but he hasn't got the big horse, somehow Cordero will cause controversy. If he has a contender, he will seek to choreograph the action. As a friend, I trainer Frank Martin, once observed, "If it's a 12-horse field, Angel wants to ride 13 horses."
In New York, where he rides almost exclusively, Cordero sets the tone of the sport almost single-handedly. People say Moses Malone dominates the boards, Goose Gossage an inning, Carl Lewis a meet, but Cordero is a force, and wherever he rides, things happen. "All I know," says Bob DeBonis, one of the state's top trainers, "is that when Angel goes, the whole face of New York racing is going to change."
All of it flows with one jockey?
"You got it."
And that, of course, could happen anytime now, because when a jockey is 41, as Cordero is, a bad fall could retire him. Cordero has no sense of that himself—indeed, he exhibits an air of invulnerability and durability—and many of his forebears have ridden much longer. But more important, as Santa says, "Riding horses is the pleasure of his life." The Corderos ride.
When Junior won his second Kentucky Derby, on Bold Forbes in 76, he requisitioned the blanket of roses. He had won the Derby with Cannonade two years before, but this one meant more to him because the trainer, Laz Barrera, and the owner, Estaban Rodriguez Tizol, were both Latin. Cordero brought the Derby roses to the cemetery in Queens and laid them on his father's grave. Then he went to Belmont to ride Monday's card.
In February, Cordero thought that Vega was really starting to blossom, and he got mad at Tommy for not getting Vega enough good mounts. Finally, Cordero fired his own flesh and blood on Vega's behalf. "Tommy's kinda lazy," he said, and he made his own agent, Frank Sanabria, take Harry's book.
Sanabria, who's Cordero's brother-in-law, had been an agent for such top riders as Jose Amy and Jacinto Vasquez before he signed on with his sister's husband four years ago. Sanabria was Cordero's second choice. Junior first offered the job to Santa, who's a fine handicapper, but she turned it down. "For Spanish men, the way they were brought up and with their egos—especially Angel's ego—J knew it would have turned into a war with us," she explains. So, Sanabria got the book, and here Cordero was now, ordering him to divert some of his energies to help another rider.
An agent, you see, can only represent one journeyman jockey at a time, though he's allowed to work for an apprentice on the side. Not surprisingly, this arrangement doesn't always enthrall the journeyman; it's rather like expecting the old wife to tolerate her husband's young girl friend. But now, here was Cordero telling Sanabria to cut into his time, because he loved Vega like a son ~and believed in him.
Cordero even told Sanabria to lean on his regular clients, and when Angel couldn't ride one of their horses, the agent was to try and get them to use Vega. So, sure enough, Vega began to get more mounts, and he began to win more.
This particular Wednesday in March, Ash Wednesday, Vega and Cordero rode an entry in the fifth race at Aqueduct. Vega had another horse in the eighth, and in the ninth he would be up on a 15-1 outsider named Not Tired Tonight. Cordero himself had mounts in the sixth, seventh and eighth races, finishing up his day's work with a win on Jacque's Tip, by a head over Startop's Ace, ridden by Jean-Luc Samyn. It was a stakes win, worth $43,860 to the winner, made all the sweeter in that Samyn claimed foul and the stewards disallowed it. Cordero despises Samyn and longs for an excuse to bust him one in the chops.
So Cordero took his shower, washed the ashes off his forehead and was carrying on in the jocks' room when the ninth race went off. Cordero paused to watch it on the monitor there, looking especially for Vega. However, Not Too Tired was far back, out of camera view, when she ducked her head, and the race caller said there had been a spill in the back and that a bug boy, Harry Vega, was lying on the track.
The question of exactly how good Cordero is has often been overshadowed by the tumult he creates. To illustrate: Cordero says he was once fired by a trainer, after having ridden three of his horses to stakes wins in a two-week period, because the owner said he was embarrassed by all the furor attached to the jockey. Although he finally got the Eclipse Awards, there were other years when Cordero was slighted because the balloters refused to look past the man to the rider. And there are some who claim that the qualification rules for the admission of jockeys to the Hall of Fame in Saratoga have been changed to keep Cordero out. One of his most persistent critics, Kent Hollingsworth, the editor of The Blood-Horse, has celebrated Cordero as "capable of turning in the finest riding performance of any jockey since Gilpatrick"—a fabled 19th-century rider—but Hollingsworth has also accused Cordero of doing "irresponsible things which endanger other horses and riders."
No other jockey in the land ranks with Cordero and Laffit Pincay. Pincay is the stronger, Cordero the better athlete. Pincay is more stable and reliable, Cordero capable of flights of genius (or, sometimes, whimsy). Pincay is four years younger than Cordero, but Cordero has, in effect, the younger body, because he heals so quickly and because he doesn't have Pincay's constant weight problem. While Vince DeGregory, an agent who has represented both jockeys at one time or another, marvels that Pincay can ride at all ("He should be 150 pounds"), Cordero—the word means lamb in Spanish—eats pretty much what he pleases, blithely watching his weight bounce up and down between 108 and 114. His evening meal, which the maid places on the table the instant he walks into the house, probably consists of more than poor Pincay consumes in a week: meat, rice and beans, vegetables, salad, bread and fried bananas, plus all the fixings.
Eddie Arcaro had the same metabolism and, they say, could win a lot of races in the jocks' room merely by making a show of gorging on snacks between races. It is Arcaro that Cordero is so often compared to—as a competitor and strategist and for his ability to switch sticks. As Arcaro was, Cordero is a race rider—if sometimes to a fault. You hear of a basketball or football player being a coach on the field; well, Junior is a handicapper in the saddle. Watch one of his races carefully with binoculars, and you might well see Cordero, if he's near the lead, casually sneaking peeks back, not because he's checking up on a rival but simply because he's curious about what the rest of the gang is up to.
Since Cordero isn't a mellow, contemplative sort, it isn't surprising that he had difficulty in his early years holding a horse in check, rating him. He wanted to be on top, waving his bat like a cavalry saber, making anyone think twice before challenging him. Velasquez recalls that Cordero would brood all day when he knew that he had to rate a strong horse who wanted to run right out of the gate.
Cordero is impulsive and fidgety. He cannot carry on a conversation for more than a few minutes without finding an excuse to hop up and prance around. He darts when he walks, and speaks rat-a-tat-tat in three languages, Spanish, English and racetrack. When he eats, he slashes at his food, even tearing a benign item like a salad apart limb from limb. When Cordero merely kisses someone, for God's sake, as when he greets his son, even that's conducted as though he's making a quick move at the eighth pole.
And, from what we know about horses, they seem to sense what the rider feels. "When you're in a bad mood, a horse can tell," Sanabria says. "When you're nervous, they can feel it. Junior is just good at getting along with horses." Indeed, he even finds out whether the personnel at a stable speak English or Spanish, so he can cluck sweet nothings to his mount in the right language.
Learning to be another sort of person in the saddle may have been the most difficult challenge in Cordero's education as a jockey. It isn't without significance that his signature comes after the race, when he is free to dismount and be himself again. Most top jockeys are known by their riding styles, but Cordero is distinguished for the way he leaves a horse. He pops off as if from a trampoline, bounding high, arms wide, smiling broadly. As a concession to a middle-aged back, he doesn't perform these spectacular dismounts regularly anymore, but they're there when needed, like the suddenly statuesque Reggie Jackson, gazing fondly after a memorable home run. One afternoon a few years ago in the paddock at Belmont, a big, unschooled 2-year-old suddenly bucked Cordero off. He hurtled through the air, twisted properly, landed nimbly on his feet, and, smiling all the while, pounced forward and leaped back on the startled animal.
Cordero paced about the jockeys' room, waiting anxiously, until he heard the diagnosis: Vega had a broken collarbone. Cordero cursed creatively at the kid's bad luck, that he should get hurt just when he was starting to click, but he didn't overdramatize it. To jockeys, broken collarbones are like tennis elbows at Wimbledon: occupational hazards. Besides, Tommy had rushed out to Franklin General Hospital to be with the kid. There was nothing Cordero could do, so he piled into his monstrous white Cadillac and zipped over to the house. After dinner, he would drive to the hospital and bring Vega back home.
Cordero dived into his dinner the way he always does. He was still fuming at Samyn, and that helped to put Vega out of mind. They had scuffled before, and now, Cordero explained, savaging an avocado, they must surely clash again, because, he asserted, Samyn kept making picayune foul claims against him—like the one in the feature today.
"I tell you, never fight on the track," Cordero said. "Even I'm not that dumb. You fight on the track, where the people can see you, they give you days," he went on, helping himself to more fried bananas. "No, you gotta wait till you get in the jocks' room, and then you make sure you get the first blow, because there's always enough people around, they jump in right away and break it up 'fore the other guy, he can hit back. Then, hey, when the fight's over, keep swingin', because this is no prizefight, no official. Just because they break it up don't mean it's over. And for that, you gonna pay $350, so you might as well get one more good shot, hey? So next time, Jean-Luc, he don't start the fight, I pay $350 fine, and he pay $350 to fix his nose! And I don't get days!" And he cackled at the thought and asked for more meat.
The phone rang and he sprang up in mid-bite. Whatever Cordero is doing, the alternative is instantly more attractive. "Yes?" he snapped. "What?" It was Tommy, at the hospital. "He what?" Cordero hollered. Oh yes, he screamed that out, and even with his brown face the color was gone. His eyes flashed over the room, here and there, showing fear, anger, desperation. Then he slammed down the phone, and for a moment Angel Cordero was still.
"Jesus Christ," he said softly. "They say Harry's neck is broken.... He's paralyzed." And then there was a long pause. "He's just a boy."
Then he clutched his belly and went into the bathroom and threw up.
It wouldn't be fair to say that trouble follows Cordero. It's more the other way around. Most recently, for example, a woman groom in Saratoga brought an assault charge against him, saying he threw a bat and glove at her in a backstretch softball game (let's not even get into that one). Even his greatest triumphs are invariably besmirched. In 1974, in the centennial Kentucky Derby, there were 23 entries, and with the throng on the infield pressing along the rail, many jockeys took an outside path. But Cordero, on Cannonade, a horse not given much of a chance, stepped through on the rail, survived two bumpings, won from 14 lengths back, and then, with élan, Cordero plucked a rose and presented it to Princess Margaret, who was there for the centennial. Woody Stephens, Cannonade's trainer, says, "Nobody ever rode a better race than Angel Cordero rode the '74 Derby." But wouldn't you know, shortly afterward it was revealed that Cordero was "saving" with two other jocks—meaning they had agreed to split their purse money with each other.
In the larcenous world of the racetrack, this is one of the least heinous practices, but as it later turned out, Cordero would be accused of race-fixing during that period (1972-75). In 1978 Tony Ciulla, an admitted fixer, charged that Cordero and several other jocks fixed a number of races at three New York tracks. Nothing was ever proved against Cordero, although the State Racing and Wagering Board, which took testimony from 10 jockeys, including Cordero, characterized the riders' statements as "incredible and patently unbelievable." Cordero, who stoutly maintains his innocence, says he is still amazed that a gangster's word would be so readily accepted by so many.
But then, perhaps no jockey has ever been in trouble so consistently—he has drawn more than 200 fines and suspensions in 20 years. We haven't got all day, so here's a Cordero sampler:
•The '78 Travers. Cordero is up on some muskrat named Shake Shake Shake in what's essentially another head-to-head duel between Affirmed and Alydar. Cordero's mount drifts out, carrying Affirmed wide and opening a hole on the rail for Alydar and Velasquez. Pincay on Affirmed hurriedly tries to cut off Alydar at the pass, fouling him. Affirmed's trainer, Barrera, Cordero's great friend, strongly intimates that Cordero had ridden so as to help his pal Velasquez.
•The '79 Belmont. Cordero gets Ronnie Franklin, the inexperienced rider of Spectacular Bid, so scared that it costs Bid the Triple Crown. Franklin tries to run away from a Cordero long shot (which is to say, from Cordero). Earlier in the week, Cordero had slammed his mount into a Franklin filly and then punched the kid in the jocks' room, the culmination of a series of confrontations highlighted by Franklin publicly calling Cordero a "spic."
•The '80 Preakness. Cordero, on Codex, comes down the Pimlico stretch herding and, it seemed to some nitpickers, whipping America's sweetheart, Genuine Risk, the first filly in 65 years to win the Kentucky Derby. The reverberations from his Preakness ride got so nasty that after a while Cordero began to throw away, unopened, all mail written in a female hand. "I didn't know there were so many bad women," Cordero says devilishly. "The words they used."
•The '81 season at Aqueduct. Cordero returns to New York from one of his infrequent sojourns out of town to discover that a polite bug boy, Richard Migliore, has been stealing his thunder. So, first day back, Cordero boasts to everybody—even to the pony boys, on the way to the gate—that he's going to show the new kid on the block "what race riding is all about." Immediately he slams his mount into Migliore's, prompting DeBonis, the trainer of Migliore's horse, to call him "the dirtiest rider in the game." Cordero got seven days, but not one rider would confirm to the stewards Cordero's loud prerace threats.
•The '83 Marlboro. On Slew O' Gold, a possible Horse of The Year, Cordero herds his main rival, Bates Motel, outside, allowing Highland Blade to cruise to victory. "It really didn't cost me the race, because my horse wound up hanging," says Chris McCarron, Bates Motel's jockey. "But it cost Angel the race. He probably would have won if he'd just ridden his own horse."
•The '83 Belmont. Cordero is on Slew O' Gold, and he's worried about Caveat, Pincay up. So he forces another horse over, which closes a hole Pincay is trying to drive through. Caveat bounced off the rail and won, but the horse was never raced again. Sometime later, Stephens, Caveat's trainer, spotted Cordero and marched over to him.
"Angel," Stephens said, "I was a raggety boy, and I came out of Kentucky the same way you were a raggety boy who came out of Puerto Rico. The horses did everything for me, and they did everything for you, and I never hurt a horse. But you steered my horse into a fence and ruined him."
And then Stephens walked away.
Cordero is hurt by that kind of talk, and, in fact, a number of horsemen will defend him against such charges. They write off incidents of the Caveat kind as aggressive riding and say he can't be faulted for the way he handles his own mounts. "Sure, he'll get mad at a horse if it don't try," DeBonis says. "He'll lather a cheating horse real good—but Angel's never vicious to horses." Also, Cordero has a reputation for winning with sore horses, giving them his tender best. People still remember an especially touching scene in a 1973 race at Gulfstream. Cordero's mount, Stretch Turn, collapsed on the far turn. Cordero lay there, next to the horse, massaging the animal's heart, until the vet arrived and told him it was too late, the poor thing was dead.
"I love horses," Cordero says. "Horses are like pets to me. When I was a little boy, I grew up with toy horses, and when I'm through riding, I'm going to train horses. So horses will be my whole life. There ain't nobody on the racetrack loves horses more than me. I know horses. People say, hey, they all look the same. But I can look at a picture of the horse, just his face, and I can probably tell you this horse. People can't believe it. I'm out at the track in the morning, and a horse will come by, and I'll say, 'Hey, ain't that the filly I beat at a mile the other day?' And they'll say, 'Angel, how did you know that?' Most jockeys, even if they rode a horse, they don't remember him. No, you can't say I would hurt a horse. Not ever."
It was revealing. Cordero's language is usually peppered with the familiar vulgarities. But the whole time he talked about horses, and how much he loved them, not once did he utter a coarse word.
Cordero's two-legged colleagues may not speak of him quite so gently, but none will say publicly that the man is a dirty rider. Competitive, yes. Aggressive, intimidating, even menacing, sometimes careless but never malicious. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by race riding.
"He rides very rough," says Pincay. "I got mad at him a lot of times. Very mad. I think I am going to kill him. Then, when I get back to the jocks' room, he comes over and says ' 'scuse me,' and I just have to forget about it."
Cordero's infectious personality—when you consider his ferocious professional conduct—is as disarming as it is baffling. In a jocks' room he is constantly joking, laughing, teasing, singing, second-guessing, showboating, screaming scatological suggestions. And he's known for helping respectful young riders; McCarron calls him "an inspiration" for newcomers to the profession. But Cordero also brooks no challenge to his position, and some jockeys are alleged to have left New York rather than be under his thumb. Steven Crist has written in The New York Times: "In New York, he is one of the fundamentals of handicapping; thoroughbred bettors consider speed, class, form, pace, weight, track condition, post position, appearance, weight—and Cordero."
To the stable cognoscenti, much of Cordero's power comes from the indulgences he can bestow on lesser riders—what are known as "second calls." A top rider like Cordero, especially one so facile at buttering up the right trainers and owners, may have more than one offer to ride in a given race. So Sanabria, the agent, will accept one and, in effect, take options on the others, agreeing to ride them only if his first choice is scratched. Cordero is so in demand that trainers will yield to his whims in one race in order to earn his favor in some future race.
So, the whispers run, when Cordero leans on a trainer to pass along one of his second calls to a Cordero-approved rider, that jockey is in Junior's debt and—human nature being what it is, particularly at a place where bets are cashed—perhaps he won't ride quite so hard against Cordero as he would against other jockeys. This charge infuriates Cordero, although he won't deny that he holds a certain sway over most of his rivals.
"The guy who messes around with me is— —crazy," he says, "because I've got eight— —horses a day, and maybe he's only got four, and chances are my horses are a lot better. So maybe he's only got one real good— —chance to win, and he sure don't want to have to worry in that race about me messing around with him. Now, understand, I'm not going to scare anyhow, and if he goes after me off the— —track, that's one thing. But if he tries to keep me close on the track, let me know he's there, box me, herd me, chase me on the— —lead when I got the speed and he don't have a— —chance, O.K., that's O.K., that's just race riding."
Cordero sat low in the Cadillac. The big car thrust forward; it wouldn't be rated. In this part of residential Queens, some of the streets have grass dividers, with one lane on either side. A car in front of Cordero's wouldn't go fast enough for him, so he pulled the Cadillac out, drove across the divider and then dashed down the other lane, in the wrong direction, changing leads at the last instant, yanking the Caddy back into the right lane at the intersection.
He found Franklin General, ditched the car in a no-parking spot and strode in. Cordero never seemed so tall. He marched to the elevator, banged the down button again and again, delivering imprecations you can't imagine, now pounding the damn button, slugging the sonofabitch, yelling at it, kicking the door, and, when the elevator finally delivered him to the Emergency Room floor, he stormed out, went straight past the special cop (who recognized him) and found the bed where Vega lay, his head strapped down to keep it still.
Tommy was sitting there with Vega, his eyes damp. Don MacBeth, another jockey, was already there, and he'd called in a specialist he knew, a neurosurgeon. Ayoub walked in with Cordero; Velasquez and his wife showed up next. Merly came with a friend. Santa, who was dining at a nearby restaurant, was notified, and she arrived, too. Victor Lopez, another bug boy who had ridden in the race in which Vega went down, was next to arrive. And there was a thoughtful young valet named John Schaffer. When Sanabria got the news and called, Cordero broke down and began to cry on the phone as he told Sanabria that Vega had a broken neck.
In the E.R. at that time were a little boy with a small bump on his head and a teenager with a fractured wrist, but here was Harry, paralyzed. A man with stomach pains said he thought he was going to be all right, after all. Then one more fellow burst in, clutching his chest where he'd been stabbed.
The special said: "I'm here four nights a week. The jock seems like a nice boy. They told me his name, and I think I seen him ride. Maybe I cashed a ticket on him once. But you see, you can't show compassion in here. You'd go crazy if you did. Weekends I go over to Aqueduct and forget all this." There was still a smudge in the middle of his forehead where the priest had touched him with ashes that morning, when Harry Vega was out galloping horses.
The considerable Hispanic influence upon racing in the U.S. was only beginning to be felt in 1962 when Cordero arrived in New York, with no contacts, unable to speak the language, so naive that he once fell for a street-corner offer to buy a $20 share in the Empire State Building. He fled back to Puerto Rico after a few months, having had only 41 mounts and a single winner.
That September he married Santa, his second cousin. She came from racing stock, too, and they had a lot in common. They both loved to go out dancing. Angel, however, was hardly the cocky guy that he has become. "He was uncertain about all his life, except racing," Santa says. "He was a helpless child—a cute, helpless child—but only for his career did he have any confidence."
Even when Cordero came back to New York in 1965 and began to enjoy a certain amount of success, he despaired and almost quit. Eddie Belmonte, another Puerto Rican jock, found Cordero at the airport and brought him back. Santa applied more subtle pressures. "Angel is very knowledgeable in racing," she explains, "but as a man—a Spanish man—he only knows how to give orders."
But it wasn't just the horses that nearly drove Cordero back to Puerto Rico. He is dark-skinned, and in a sport that has traditionally been inhospitable to blacks, save those carrying feed pails, Cordero wasn't only a bean-eater, he was a nigger, as well.
Discrimination was new to him, and he was unprepared for it. Even now, the bitterness surfaces. Asked about Declan Murphy, a hot apprentice at New York tracks, Cordero says, "He'll always do better than he should because he's blond and blue-eyed." (And he likes Murphy, too.) A leading trainer has said of Cordero, "It's not for his black face that I won't ride him. It's for his black heart."
A good many Hispanic jocks ride in New York, but there is no question that the worst racial slurs are reserved for Cordero. He laughs now and, exaggerating a little, says that he was called "a little black m— —" so often while he was still unsure of his English that he actually began answering to what he assumed was a friendly nickname. Today, not only that old standby but also "monkey" and references to his rice and beans diet and to his alleged race fixing are regularly screamed out at the racetracks, in the vilest language. Cordero is so accustomed to death threats that he has asked not to be advised of them. He merely assumes another threat has been made when he notices cops escorting him in the paddock. "The Spanish people are worse than the Americans," Cordero says with equanimity. "They all want to play macho man."
It's also true that, because there is no Puerto Rican hero today on the order of a Clemente or a Cepeda, Cordero casts a long shadow for puertorrique√±os everywhere. There was even a pop song, recorded by Ismael Rivera in 1970, entitled Eddie y Junior, for Belmonte and Cordero. But while Cordero is proud of his heritage, he rarely goes back to the island and views himself as a New Yorker. "I feel like I'm the pride of New York," he says. "Everybody else goes to California, it seems, but I'll stick here."
After all, it has been almost 20 years since he and Santa, with the infant Tommy, set up house in the States. Merly (named, not unlike they might name a horse, by combining the two first syllables of her grandmothers' names, Mercedes and Lydia) was born in New York. Both children speak their parents' native tongue only grudgingly, and abominably. The Corderos still live in the same house they moved into in 1968. The neighborhood was predominantly Jewish then; now it's working-class black. What matters to Cordero is that it's only 15 minutes from his horses.
Because, as Velasquez puts it, Cordero is "shy and timid" in crowds not composed of racing people, he rarely ventures into what residents of Queens call "the city"—Manhattan. If anything, the more famous Cordero gets, the more insular he becomes. The only new adventure in his life away from the track is racquetball, but he plays it with horsemen. "Horses," says Santa. "He doesn't talk about much else. Horses, that's all Angel lives for. Horse people—that's his circle. Horses are his life."
His house is a racing museum. Oh, here and there graduation and first communion portraits may be spotted amid the cups and trophies, the Peb drawings, the bronzed mementos, the two Eclipse Awards. Now that he has won them, been certified the best, people ask him, Junior, what next? You make a million a year, you're the epitome of your craft, but here you are in your 40s, every day enduring calumny and vitriol, every day risking life and limb. What more is there?
Well, if it's Wednesday, it's the first race Thursday—$12,000 claiming, 3-year-old maiden fillies, six furlongs. Or, if it's Thursday, it's the first race Friday. And so on.
The neurosurgeon MacBeth had called was on his way. Over in the corner bed, Vega still lay with tape pulled down on either side of his head. "The filly ducked her head," Vega said, "and the more I pulled, the more she pulled down, and then I came over her." He paused. "Maybe if I was as good as Angel...." Then his voice trailed off, and Cordero walked away, shaking.
"A horse gonna do that, and it don't matter who you are," Cordero said. That kind of risk exists every time a trainer lifts a jockey up—almost 2,000 times a year in Cordero's case. "Harry's just a boy. He don't know how to fall. Me, my body—I'm little, but I'm grown. I know."
Composed again, Cordero walked back to see Vega, to see his surrogate son, who had only ridden six months. It was hard to believe, but this face of innocent desperation would now, forever, because a filly ducked, be the only thing that worked; it would be perched for a lifetime on top of a body that would shrivel and go slack. Cordero began to worry about what he would say to Harry's mother in Puerto Rico. He wondered what he could tell her about what horses had done to the boy he'd made a jockey.
The neurosurgeon arrived, a tweed coat over his greens, and he studied the X rays for a long time, wrinkling his nose, before he shooed everybody away from Vega's bed and pulled the curtains around it.
When he came away a few minutes later, the tape had been removed from Vega's head, and the neurosurgeon told everybody that the first doctor had made a mistake. Vega didn't have a broken neck, after all. He only had a broken collarbone, like jockeys everywhere, all the time.
And so, two hours after Harry Vega thought he had been paralyzed for life, he was going back to the Corderos' house, riding in the big white Caddy, which Angel drove gingerly through the dark and quiet streets of Queens. With luck and good healing, in another eight weeks or so, around the first of May,
would be sitting a horse again, race riding against
himself, the pride of New York.