The practice is probably as old as the Roman chariot races, but it never fails to stir controversy. When a jockey rides a tactical race, designed specifically to defeat one of his opponents, he will be second-guessed, denounced or even vilified.
So Angel Cordero Jr. is being widely criticized after his ride aboard Slew o' Gold in the Marlboro Cup Saturday at Belmont Park. Knowing that Bates Motel was the horse he had to beat, Cordero kept Slew o' Gold ridiculously wide as he tried to obstruct the favorite. In doing so, however, he permitted longshot Highland Blade to rally on the inside and win the race.
Even Slew o' Gold's trainer, the normally taciturn Sidney Watters, complained about Cordero's performance. "He rode like it was a match race," Watters said.
Cordero has ridden this way many times before, of course. No other jockey in America is so competitive, so calculating. He is always thinking about the other horses in a race besides his own; if he can intimidate or beguile the opposition, he will.
Is this type of tactical race riding usually effective? Or is a jockey better off minding his own business and concentrating on his own horse (as Jacinto Vasquez did aboard Highland Blade)? Cordero's most memorable and controversial rides over the years shed some light on the whole subject.
Cordero will always be remembered for his ride in the 1980 Preakness, when he permitted Codex to drift into Genuine Risk's path on the turn and, as headline writers would say the next day, "mugged" the popular filly. This, in fact, is a routine Cordero tactic, and the Preakness incident was greatly overblown by the media.
So, too, was the controversy in this year's Belmont Stakes. When Caveat was rallying along the rail, Cordero angled Slew o' Gold in an effort to close the hole and almost put jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. over the fence. This, too, was fairly routine. No rider is supposed to surrender the rail in a $200,000 stake.
The races that epitomize Cordero's tactics are the 1978 Travers, the 1982 Travers and now the 1983 Marlboro Cup.
The 1978 race at Saratoga showed how Cordero can make himself a key factor almost any time he wants to, even if he is riding a hopeless longshot against the best horses in the world. That was the situation when he had the mount on 20-to-1 Shake Shake Shake against Affirmed and Alydar.
Shake Shake Shake was on the rail, with Affirmed outside him and Alydar, ridden by Cordero's pal, Jorge Velasquez, just behind him. On the backstretch, Cordero permitted his mount to drift off the rail so that Alydar could rush up and challenge for the lead. His sudden move forced Affirmed's jockey, Pincay, to react hurriedly, hustle past Cordero's horse and angle to the rail.
When he did, he cut in front of Alydar so sharply that he committed a foul and got himself disqualified. When Cordero was asked if he had plotted Affirmed's defeat, he only smiled angelically. But even though he was riding the horse who finished a distant last, he had plotted the whole scenario.
Four years later, Cordero was trying to beat another supposed superhorse in the Travers, as he rode Aloma's Ruler against Conquistador Cielo. He saw a way to do it. The inside part of the Saratoga racing strip was disadvantageously deep; nobody had been able to win on the rail all day. So as Conquistador Cielo raced to the first turn, Cordero loomed up outside him, pinned him to the rail and wouldn't let him off it.
His own interest might have been better served if he kept Aloma's Ruler as far from the rail as possible, but he figured that his first order of business was to beat Conquistador Cielo. He did just that, but longshot Runaway Groom came charging down the middle of the track to beat them both.
That is very similar to what happened Saturday, when Cordero successfully plotted the defeat of Bates Motel but lost the race, anyway.
As brilliant as his tactics may be, they haven't usually accomplished what they are supposed to accomplish. Despite all his machinations, Cordero's horses lost the '78 Travers and the '82 Travers and the '83 Belmont. His tactics were irrelevant in the '80 Preakness; Codex would have trounced Genuine Risk regardless of what the jockey did.
And now his craftiness almost surely cost Slew o' Gold a victory in the Marlboro Cup. Cordero's record in these controversial races is a good argument for the mind-your-own-business school of riding.