Snow covered the infield at Aqueduct Race Track Monday. The weather was so sharp that post parades were shortened to four minutes to protect jockeys from frostbite. It was the kind of day when hungry young riders usually win a lot of races, because many of the established veterans have already departed for sunnier climates and the ones who remain may take only two or three choice mounts.
Angel Cordero Jr. has long passed the stage of his career where he needs to worry about winning with cheap claiming horses on days like this. To the cognoscenti in the racing world, he has already proved that he is the most gifted member of his profession in America. And he has compiled statistics to support that assessment. Cordero has won more than 4,800 races; he has won virtually every important stake (including two Kentucky derbies); his mounts have earned more than $70 million.
And yet, at the age of 40, Cordero is subjecting himself to a schedule that would exhaust any of those hungry young riders. Saturday, he rode six races at Aqueduct, went home for a short nap, then drove to New Jersey to ride seven races at the Meadowlands that night. Sunday morning, he caught an early morning flight to Los Angeles to ride a horse in a rich stakes race at Hollywood Park. After his mount finished out of the money, Cordero flew back to New York, arriving early Monday morning, and managed to get a couple of hours of sleep. Then he was scheduled to ride seven horses at Aqueduct in the afternoon and five more at the Meadowlands at night.
Cordero's nominal reason for these exertions is that he wants to be the top money-winning rider in America this year. He set this objective at the start of the year, although for much of it he seemed to be hopelessly behind Laffit Pincay Jr.
But when he started closing the gap on Pincay this fall, he intensified his efforts and finally caught him last month. Cordero's mounts have earned $9,175,000 -- more than any other rider has ever won in a single year -- and he has pulled $500,000 ahead of Pincay. Even so, Cordero is still vaguely dissatisfied and is still driven, because what he wants is something more elusive than the moneywinning title. He wants recognition.
Cordero has never been recognized as the preeminent American jockey, as Eddie Arcaro once was. He has never had the attention from the media that venerable, soft-spoken Bill Shoemaker or cherub-faced Chris McCarron get. He has never won an Eclipse Award. That honor usually goes to the jockey whose mounts have earned the most money, but when Cordero led that list in 1976 the voters bestowed the Eclipse Award on Sandy Hawley.
Cordero's resentment shows. "They say the Eclipse Award is for the outstanding rider," he said. "This year, I broke the record for winners at Belmont, and I call that outstanding, but nobody said nothing. At Saratoga, I was the leading jockey for the seventh year in a row; I call that outstanding. This year, I've ridden over 1,700 horses and averaged over 20 percent winners. I call that outstanding."
His own frustration has been the impetus for his extraordinarily productive year. "Whenever anything goes wrong," he said, "I get psyched up. If I'm sick, I win more races. If I'm in controversies with the papers, I win more. I get in high gear when I'm under pressure."
Cordero proved this in 1980 when he was accused of fixing races and was booed mercilessly by New York's fans. He responded by riding better than ever. Now the self-imposed pressure to capture the money-winning title and the Eclipse Award is having a similar effect.
Monday, Cordero arrived at the jockeys' room a few minutes too late to fulfill his engagement in the first race. But instead of looking worn or haggard, he looked as if he had been given a shot of adrenaline. Smiling and laughing, he looked as if he couldn't wait to go out in the 20-degree weather and ride a $12,000 claiming horse in the second race.
But the smile disappeared momentarily as he watched the first race on television. The horse he had been scheduled to ride opened a big early lead and led all the way, and Cordero realized that if he had slept a few minutes less he would have had that winner. "It's so hard to be perfect when you're fighting for something," he said.
A few minutes later, the smile had returned and Cordero was walking to the paddock to ride a horse named Louhoum in the second race. Breaking from the outside post position, he angled to the rail, saved ground around the first turn and around the final turn, and then swung out for running room in the stretch. Louhoum drew abreast of the leader, but didn't seem to want to go past him.
Now Cordero started shoving him powerfully, whipping rhythmically, and Louhoum got to the finish line about an inch in front of his rival, giving the jockey his 373d winner of the year. In the winner's circle he vaulted off the horse as if he had just won the Kentucky Derby.
It may have been just a cheap race on a snowy day at Aqueduct in December, but Cordero could savor the knowledge that he had ridden his horse perfectly and that the victory brought him a little closer to his goals.