In search of happy ending, Cordero rides one last time

October 28, 1995|By John Eisenberg

ELMONT, N.Y. -- So, there is one more ride for Angel Cordero Jr. at age 52, in the fourth year of his retirement, with his body broken and his reflexes dulled.

His doctors are allowing it only grudgingly. His wife is horrified. His children are frightened.

But none of that will stop Cordero from hopping on the back of a long-shot filly named Classy Mirage today in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Belmont Park.

"I am doing this for myself, because I want to end things right," Cordero said yesterday in the misty morning sunshine outside Barn 37, where he conducts his post-riding life as a trainer of a small stable.

That is what separates his comeback from those of Michael Jordan, Monica Seles and Mike Tyson. The others want new beginnings, a return to past glories. Cordero isn't so greedy. He just wants to correct one of the few shortcomings of his career: the way it ended.

That ending came in January 1992, when Cordero was thrown from a mount at Aqueduct and crashed against the rail. He had fallen before, but this was different. Doctors found severe internal injuries, removed his spleen in emergency surgery and had to follow up with three more operations.

"For 48 hours, they thought I might die," he said. "I went through hell."

He tried to will his way back to the races, but his battered body failed him. He was finished.

His career had included two firsts in the Kentucky Derby, four in the Breeders' Cup, dozens of riding titles, thousands of wins and a well-deserved reputation as one of the boldest, shrewdest jockeys in history. But the ending haunted him.

"I hated that everyone's last view of me at the track was when I was being taken off in an ambulance," he said. "I never got to say goodbye."

He didn't fight it, though, mostly because he couldn't. The fall had terrible lingering effects. He got sick easily and endured many vague pains. Exercising a horse in the morning left him exhausted.

Reconciled to the end of his riding days, he embarked on his training career with enthusiasm. Building a stable is a tough proposition, but Cordero has saddled five stakes winners so far. "I'm happy with the way it is going," he said.

He began to think about coming back after he spent last winter in South Florida instead of New York. "I didn't get sick down there like I did up here," he said. "I started feeling better."

It occurred to him, with the Breeders' Cup coming to Belmont, that there was a chance for him to say goodbye appropriately, from a saddle, with a wave to the fans, on his own terms. Cordero hired a private trainer and got back into shape.

He returned to the races earlier this month with a front-running win aboard Puerto Rican champion Bandit Bomber at the El Commandante track in San Juan, where he got his start years ago. Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, an old friend, saw that and offered him the mount on Classy Mirage in the Sprint. The filly's regular jockey, Julie Krone, had chosen another horse in the race.

Although Classy Mirage is a 12-1 shot as a 5-year-old filly running against mares, Cordero has big ideas. The Sprint is suited to his aggressive style.

"I like our chances as long as it doesn't rain," he said. "It's exciting enough just to get to ride again, but to pick up a mount with a shot is really exciting."

Cordero has celebrated the occasion with a few rides in smaller races at Belmont on Oct. 14, Thursday and yesterday. After today, he may ride in the Caribbean Classic in December in the Dominican Republic. But today's ride is his last in the United States.

"That's it, for sure," he said, laughing. "I can't start doing this again. But it's nice to know that I can come back and still ride."

The perfect ending would be one more victory today. It isn't a totally impossible dream: famous English jockey Lester Piggot won a Breeders' Cup race when he was in his 50s. Cordero's instincts aren't in sharp racing shape, but he will be at home in a race that calls for all-out sprinting.

"I'm not worried about his age at all," Jerkens said.

Cordero isn't worried, either. "I stopped getting butterflies as a jockey a long time ago," he said. "Now, I get them as a trainer."

His wife? She's plenty worried. His doctors? Let's just say they wish he wasn't going through with this.

But Cordero would have it no other way. His face radiates happiness.

"I know some people don't want this, but the other ending was so sad," he said. "I'm thrilled for the chance to get it right."

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