SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Like Reggie Jackson in a World Series or Larry Bird in the last two minutes of a playoff game, Angel Cordero Jr. always has been able to raise his level of intensity and the quality of his performance at Saratoga.
Once the best in his profession under any circumstances, Cordero has had seasons here when he rode as brilliantly as any jockey who has ever lived. He has been the leading rider at Saratoga for 11 straight years.
But now his dominance appears to be ended. With four days left in the season, Cordero trails young Jose Santos by four winners. If Santos maintains his lead, his triumph will mean much more than the mere ending of Cordero's streak. It will be a symbol that the torch has been passed, that Santos has taken Cordero's long-held position as the No. 1 jockey in New York.
Even though Cordero is approaching these final few days with the kind of determination that he might bring to the Kentucky Derby, he can't alter the fact that he is 44 years old and his rival is 26. Age has eroded his skills and stamina just enough that he doesn't figure to hold off Santos' challenge much longer.
Although riding championships at individual race meetings are honors quickly forgotten, Cordero has made the Saratoga title a special goal because his earliest memories of the place are so painful. He had just come to this country from Puerto Rico and was trying to establish himself as a jockey -- with no success.
"I couldn't get any mounts," he recalled, "and I had to borrow $25 every week to pay the rent. I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment with two other guys. One of them did the cooking so he got one of the beds; I had to flip a coin with the other guy to see who slept on the floor. I left owing everybody money."
After Cordero made it to the top, Saratoga was the perfect showcase for his talents. The track here is usually much more speed-favoring than those downstate, and Cordero is at his best when he is riding speed horses and can be as aggressive as he wants. Saratoga is also a track that can develop strong biases, and Cordero is a master at detecting them and capitalizing on them.
One day in the 1970s, when speed horses on the rail were winning all the races, he was breaking from an outside post position on a chronically slow horse. He warmed up the horse vigorously in the post parade, then cracked up with the whip at least 20 times in the first sixteenth of a mile -- forcing the surprised animal to get to the lead and the rail, where he went on to win the race. No other jockey in America could have done it.
Yet of all Cordero's feats, none was so remarkable as his defense of the Saratoga riding title last year. In March, Cordero was involved in a terrible spill that seemed to put his whole career in jeopardy. Despite suffering a lacerated liver and a fractured leg, Cordero put himself through arduous therapy so he could go to Saratoga.
At times he looked and moved like an old man. Yet he rode so fiercely during the first half of the meeting that he built up a big lead over Santos and held on to win his 11th straight Saratoga crown. Even Cordero's detractors had to acknowledge it was an amazingly courageous performance.
Everywhere else, though, Santos was displaying his superiority. The hard-riding Chilean was the top race-winning jockey in New York last year and the top money-winning rider in America. Cordero -- who is fiercely competitive with most jockeys -- did not begrudge him the success.
"Jose and I are friends. I respect him as a jockey and as a person. I'd rather be fighting with somebody I don't like so I could do all kind of illegal things," Cordero said, laughing -- though anyone who has seen him ride over the years knows this wasn't entirely a joke. "Of course, if Jose is flying up the rail at Saratoga and I can block him, I'll do it."
Cordero psyched himself for Santos' challenge at this Saratoga meeting. He worked every morning, exercising horses, so he could line up the best possible mounts. Yet he frankly acknowledged his liabilities. "He's got 18 years on me. I can't ride nine races a day anymore. I don't like riding in hot weather -- it takes too much out of you."
Cordero went into the final week trailing Santos, 20-18, and said before the Wednesday card, "If I'm going to catch him I've got to do well today." The familiar Cordero fire was there.
But with his first mount of the day, a turf runner named Pekabo Baby, he got caught behind heavy traffic on the turn and shuffled out of contention. His second mount was a solid favorite, Golden Champ, but when he started to accelerate on the turn he was blocked and lost momentum -- just enough trouble to cost him the race. These were things that didn't often happen to a fired-up Cordero in his youth.
As Santos increased his lead, Cordero acknowledged reality. "I've still got some fight left in me," he said, "but I know that nothing lasts forever."