Friday, September 2, 2011
The one and only King of Saratoga
By Bob Ehalt
John Velazquez (right) passed Angel Cordero Jr. as the second all-time leading rider at Saratoga.
There are instances when the name associated with something generates little more than a blank look.
I’m old, but not old enough to recall much about Conn Smythe.
And, no disrespect intended, but who in the world is Major Deegan and how did he get an expressway named after him?
Yet when the New York Racing Association named its award for the leading jockey at Saratoga after Angel Cordero Jr., it was like naming a music award after Frank Sinatra. Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Ironically, in this first year of the Angel Cordero Award, "The King of Saratoga" has slipped into third place on the list of all-time leading riders at the Spa. Jerry Bailey currently tops the list of all-time wins, and on Thursday Cordero was passed by John Velazquez, a 39-year-old rider who has risen to the top of his profession through the invaluable work of his agent, a fellow by the name of Angel Cordero Jr.
“This means a lot,” said Velazquez, who, quite fittingly, is locked in a fierce battle with Javier Castellano for the first Cordero riding award. “To be right next to Angel Cordero and follow in Jerry Bailey’s footsteps is a great accomplishment. There are no other words to describe it.”
That might put Bailey, who has 693 wins, and Johnny V., with 650 wins, ahead of his total of 649 victories, but neither one of them ever owned Saratoga quite like Cordero did or could they match his charisma.
Confident, cocky, aggressive, daring, flamboyant; Cordero was all that and more. He won his first Spa title in 1967 and then was the only riding champ Saratoga knew for 11 straight meets, from 1976 through 1986. After Jose Santos won the title in 1987, Cordero got mad and reeled off two more crowns in 1988 and 1989.
Cordero was never shy and he took pride in his Saratoga streak, much like Woody Stephens treasured his five straight Belmont Stakes winners.
And fans treasured Cordero. Well, at least some of them did.
For much of his career, the Hall of Fame rider was a polarizing figure. People either seemed to love him or hate him, some bouncing back and forth between those two emotions during the running of a single race.
But at Saratoga there was a love fest.
A horse could go off as the favorite at the Spa simply because “The King” was on his back.
He was a dominant figure at those meets in the 1970’s and 1980’s in a manner different from that of Bailey and Velazquez. Both of those riders had a powerful stable behind them. Bailey was a regular rider for trainer Bill Mott, who won eight Spa training titles during Bailey’s glory days. Velazquez has been supported by trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won seven Saratoga titles and is well on his way to No. 8 this year.
Cordero, though, rode for anyone and everyone who had a “live” runner. He worked magic at the Spa on a daily basis, taking runners who seemed to have little more than a fighting chance of winning and used every ounce of his skill and guile to push them across the finish line first.
The best ever? At Saratoga, oh yeah.
If we wasn’t, then why would they name an award after him?