NEW YORK -- He has no recollection of being rushed to surgery, his lungs filled with blood, his spleen damaged beyond repair, his small intestine crushed in two places, his life in jeopardy. He has no memory of the week that followed or of the bedside vigil kept by his wife, Marjorie, his family and closest friends.
But Angel Cordero Jr. remembers vividly that violent instant, an explosion of falling horses and riders, flailing steel-plated hoofs and breaking bones, that was probably the final moment of his brilliant 31-year career.
If indeed Cordero's career as a jockey was over at the instant his 113-pound body was hurled against a rail support at the threshold of the stretch turn, the end came not in the glare of an important race, the stage upon which he reveled for decades in a seemingly endless succession of memorable feats. It came not in quest of the huge purses and important titles that propelled his single-minded, willful progression from the dusty streets of Santurce, Puerto Rico, to the Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. It came in a claiming race for maidens on a winter Sunday at Aqueduct, on a horse named Grey Tailwind.
"I didn't remember a thing at first," Cordero said softly. "But it all came back after a while. I remember. I remember everything. I knew I was going down. I thought about jumping off, but it happened so fast. I never hit the ground. When I went off, I hit that pole on a straight fly."
Within 24 pain-wracked hours, Cordero's stomach had swollen, his blood pressure skyrocketed. He was rushed to a massive surgery and, when it was over, he was only even money to live through the night.
"It could have been worse," Cordero said weakly almost three months later and with only a vague idea of what the future holds. "I could have died. I could have not been able to walk. If you die, it's over quick. You don't feel nothin' after that. If you couldn't walk . . . That would be the worst thing that could happen to a person.
"The doctors tell me I'm lucky to be here. But I can't just sit here looking out the window thinking about how lucky I am. I can't feel happy just because I'm lucky."
But in the grip of a slow, difficult recovery from his second brush with death in six years, Cordero has come to grips with mortality. More than three months and hundreds of hours of excruciating pain after what was, by his recollection, his 24th serious accident, Cordero weighs barely 100 pounds, wears a surgical incision from his breastbone to his groin and moves only with obvious discomfort. Long days, when he suffers frequent chills, and sleepless nights are filled by television and Nintendo.
"I only go out of the house for therapy [for his elbow]," he said. "I try not to go out because my tolerance for sickness is very low. When I do go out, I'm very tired when I get home."
Cordero sees three doctors regularly. They have not told him he will never ride again, though all would advise against it. Nor have they told him he will. "I complain about something, and they tell me it's normal, that I need time. That's the thing I don't have. The last time I was hurt bad [in March 1986, a lacerated liver in an accident at Aqueduct], I was one month in the hospital and three days after I got out I was back in training. I was riding in July. When I was hurt, I could tell how long it would take me to get back, and it was always sooner than the doctors said it would be. I've ridden with broken arms, broken ribs, broken fingers . . . . I've never given myself time.
"I go to therapy now two or three times a week, and it's not doing me any good. When I'd get hurt before, by this time I'd be riding a bike or running on a treadmill, doing different things to get fit. But I'm not doing much this time."
He has an important examination scheduled late this month and on May 5, three days after the Kentucky Derby, Cordero said he intends to announce the path chosen.
His wife, a former jockey turned trainer, and his mother have urged him to retire from riding and turn to training. Cordero is likely to comply if only out of resignation to the suffering he has endured this time.
"At first," he said, "I had it in my mind that I could be back to ride a Derby horse. When I realized I wasn't going to make it, I was hoping to be back for Saratoga. But I'm not doing any real exercise now. It will be a long time before I can, and it would take me two or three months of hard training to get fit enough just to be able to compete.
"It's very hard to leave a profession that you've worked at so many years. I made a lot of money and I made it to the top. But if it's going to take five or six months to get back, it's not going to do me any good sitting here looking out the window.