Angel Cordero Jr. has won more than 5,700 races, more than $100 million in purses, all the American classic events and an Eclipse Award. But when he climbed aboard an undistinguished 3-year-old named I'm Your Boy for a minor race at Belmont Park today, he admitted, "My knees were shaking. I was more nervous than when I rode my first race."
The even-money favorite sat in second place along the backstretch, took command on the turn and drew away to an easy victory as the New York horseplayers cheered wildly for the jockey they usually love to hate. Four months after an accident that threatened not only his career but his life, Angel Cordero was back.
That spill at Aqueduct in March had been the 24th of his career, and the worst. His mount, Highfalutin, went lame and started to move uncontrollably from the rail toward the outside fence. "I knew I was going to go down," Cordero recalled. "He hit the heels of a horse in front of him, and I went over the top. I remember rolling around, thinking that everything was going to be okay, that the other horses were going to miss me. Then one hit me on my leg, and the other hit the right side of my ribs."
When Cordero tried to get up, he knew immediately that his leg was broken. And he could feel that he was bleeding internally -- the result of a lacerated liver. He faded in and out of consciousness: "I thought I was dreaming that I was going in a helicopter. . . . I remember waking up in a hospital and hearing the doctor say, 'We're going to operate. Maybe you'll be okay.'. . . . I remember hearing one guy say, 'Maybe we're losing him.' I told God, 'If I 'm not going to make it, take me now.' I was in a lot of pain."
Cordero made it, but his 43-year-old body was battered and swollen. The liver injury was bad enough, but all of a jockey's strength and balance depend on his legs. The doctors were at first uncertain whether he would be able to resume riding, but Cordero is the toughest competitor in his profession, and he was determined to try.
He started a program of exercise and physical therapy at the Hospital of Special Surgery in Manhattan and he said, "I never exercised more in my life than I have since the accident. I lift weights, ride a stationary bicycle and do various exercise routines. I'd never done sit-ups in my life, and I had such trouble doing even one that my trainer said, 'How are you ever going to beat a bunch of 22-year-old guys?' But the other day, I did 30."
Cordero hoped to resume riding on a full-scale basis at the Saratoga meeting, which starts on July 30, and so he knew he needed to ease back into action this month. He started exercising horses in the mornings at Belmont, even though he needed crutches to get there and had to be helped aboard the horses because he could barely bend his leg.
"The first time I got on a horse," he said, "I wasn't sure if I could make it back." But today he showed that he could. He rode two races, winning his comeback aboard I'm Your Boy and then completing a perfect afternoon with a victory aboard Gulch in the $67,700 Tremont Stakes.
Afterwards, he said, "My body is very sore. I'm like a horse and I'm going to have to see how I pull up tomorrow. I'll probably be more sore than today." Cordero said he hopes to ride two or three a day for the remainder of the month.
Any physical distress he felt was soothed by the sheer joy of returning to the sport he loves, and by the reception he received. Through most of his career, Cordero has been the recipient of boos, partly because New Yorkers don't love anybody, partly because he has thrived on being the most controversial rider in the game.
His most famous and notorious ride -- when he and Codex "mugged" the beloved filly Genuine Risk in the 1980 Preakness -- typified Cordero's approach to the sport: intimidate your opponents and win any way you can. His methods may have earned him respect as the best jockey in America, but they have never been calculated to make anybody love him.
Today, however, even Cordero's bitterest detractors had to feel a measure of sympathy and admiration for his fierce efforts to come back to racing. "It felt great to come back and get a welcome like that," he said, but he knew that the cheers would be mingled with (or drowned out by) boos before long.
"I'm used to people going crazy when I'm around," Cordero said. "You know, they either hate me and boo or love me and cheer. But nothing was ever like today's crowd reaction. Never in my 26 years of riding have I had a welcome like that. It was not only good for me, but it's also good for racing. If I can help racing then I am happy, because racing is my life. It always has been and will be until I die."