When he came here for the first time in 1962, Angel Cordero, Jr. couldn't appreciate much of the glamor and charm of Saratoga.
He shared a room with four race-track workers as he tried to establish himself as a jockey. He was having no success. "I had to ask other exercise boys for money so I could eat," he recalled. "It was very embarrassing for me. I made a promise to myself that if I came back I would make a success of riding at that meeting."
Cordero kept that promise, in spectacular fashion. If Reggie Jackson was Mr. October, Cordero was Mr. August. As brilliantly as he rode the other 11 months of the year, he pushed himself to an even higher level at Saratoga. For 10 straight years, he has been the leading jockey at the classiest race meeting in America.
But as he seeks his 11th straight title, Cordero finds himself in the unfamiliar role of underdog. His age and health are liabilities, and he is facing a challenger who is as hungry, energetic and talented as the young Cordero was. The competition between the 43-year-old Cordero and 24-year-old Jose Santos should be the most fascinating of the season here.
Cordero was the reigning king of the New York riders until March 8, when his mount fell in a race at Aqueduct and he was trampled by another horse. Cordero suffered a fractured tibia bone and a lacerated liver that threatened both his career and his life.
While Cordero was hospitalized, Santos suddenly emerged as a star. He had been in New York for less than a year and was probably destined to be a leading rider, but his agent, Frank Sanabria, conceded, "With Cordero out of the way, it made things a lot easier." At Belmont Park, Santos won the jockey title by riding 86 winners -- double the total of his nearest competitor.
Cordero likes Santos, and one day he will graciously hand over the mantle of New York's leading rider. But he was not willing to cede his Saratoga supremacy without a fight. Although his doctors cautioned him that he was trying to do too much too soon, he worked hard to rehabilitate himself as he resumed riding at Belmont in early July.
He took only one or two mounts a day, trying to get himself fit by the time Saratoga opened. Beginning today, he will find out he whether he has the strength to ride seven or eight or nine mounts a day -- which is what he will have to do to win his 11th title.
Sanabria used to be Cordero's agent, and he understands the jockey's determination. "Angel loves competition and challenges -- that's what makes him great," Sanabria said. "For this meeting, he always psyched himself in such a strong way that he could overcome a lot of obstacles. I'm sure he's mentally ready this year, but I don't see how he can be at his best physically after that accident. Sometimes, athletes tell themselves to do things, but their bodies just don't react."
Because of Sanabria, Santos has been riding for many of Cordero's regular clients recently, and he will keep those connections now that Cordero is back. For example, Cordero used to ride fairly regularly for trainer Dick Dutrow, and he suffered his injury aboard a Dutrow horse. But when Dutrow saddles the favorite in today's stakes race at Saratoga, the jockey will be Jose Santos. Sanabria is confident Santos will be the top rider here for a simple reason: "We have the customers; we have the horses."
But Cordero still has the determination, and the last 10 Saratoga seasons have shown that that is not something to be taken lightly.