Angel Cordero's Last Ride by Paul Volponi

Angel Cordero Jr. winning the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Oct. 19, 1985
Photo by: Blood-Horse Photo Library

by Paul Volponi 

On January 12, 1992, a chilly wind blew off the waters of Jamaica Bay, standing the flags on edge at nearby Aqueduct Racetrack.

Jockey Angel Cordero Jr. confidently strode into the paddock where 11 Thoroughbreds were being saddled. Cordero’s confidence was a reflection of his amazing ability as a rider, an ability that had won the Puerto Rican native more than 7,000 races and carried him to victory in three Kentucky Derbys. This race, however, was no Kentucky Derby. It was a bottom-level contest for maiden claimers.

Cordero, 49, at the time and a grandfather of two, flashed his famed smile for the fans gathered at the railing. The other riders in the race, most of whom were young enough to be his grown sons, respected Cordero immensely, not only for his accomplishments, but for his intensely competitive nature.

Angel Cordero - Photo courtesy of NYRA

Angel approached his mount, Gray Tailwind, and was given a leg-up into the saddle. Then Cordero momentarily mashed his whip between his teeth while he used both hands to check the bridle and reins. He shifted his weight, first right, then left, checking that the saddle was secure. It was a ritual Cordero had practiced thousands of times during his more than 30 years as a jockey.

Despite his cautions, Cordero had, by his own count, been in 23 spills, breaking nearly every bone in his body at least once. Yet the fear of injury was something Cordero never let creep into his mind. For once a champion jockey’s concern for his safety outweighs his will to win, he is all but finished in the sport.

Angel Cordero on Broad Brush during the 1987 Santa Anita Handicap
Photo by Blood-Horse Photo Library

On the racetrack, Cordero warmed up Grey Tailwind. Not far away, jockey John Velazquez, 20, was warming up his mount, Deal Rowdy.

Velazquez had, like Cordero, come to New York from Puerto Rico. He had graduated jockey school nearly two years before. Cordero had seen a tape of the youngster ride and encouraged him to come to the U.S. Velazquez, who spoke little English at first, was invited to live with Cordero and his family. Angel then adopted John as his protégée and began teaching him everything he knew about riding.

Why would Cordero share so much with Velazquez in this highly competitive sport? Cordero was repaying the kindness another Puerto Rican rider, Eddie Belmonte, had shown him when he first came to this country and was struggling to find success.

John Velazquez (right) is congratulated by Angel Cordero Jr, after moving into the No. 2 spot among the all-time leading jockeys at Saratoga Race Course. Photo by Coglianese Photos

At the starting gate, Cordero entered stall #2 on Grey Tailwind, and Velazquez entered #4 atop Rowdy Deal for the six-furlong sprint.

Then, the starting gate doors sprung open and the field furiously flew into stride.

A horse named Sytanic shot to the lead. Down along the inside rail, Velazquez pushed his horse to keep up. His arms were pumping hard, but Deal Rowdy was already beginning to tire. Cordero had Grey Tailwind racing along the inside rail behind Velazquez, only Cordero was sitting relaxed in the saddle, still waiting to make his move.

As the field leaned into the far turn, Cordero loosened his grip on the reins, giving Grey Tailwind his cue to accelerate. The Thoroughbred lengthened his stride and was gaining quickly.

Angel Cordero - Photo by Lydia Williams/Laurel Park

The rest was a blur to both Cordero and Velazquez.

Deal Rowdy’s left leg suddenly snapped.

Velazquez and his horse went crashing to the cold, hard ground.

It happened so fast, Cordero had nowhere to go. Grey Tailwind tripped over the fallen horse, and Cordero was launched head-over-heels.

Cordero slammed into one of the metal poles holding up the inside rail, and his battered body lay wrapped around it.

Two other riders and their horses also fell.

Cordero and Velazquez were rushed to the hospital. Both were unconscious.

Deal Rowdy’s injury could not be treated. Within minutes, the Thoroughbred was humanely destroyed by the track veterinarian.

Velazquez awoke in the same hospital room as Cordero, his friend and mentor.

At first, the young jockey thought he was dreaming. Sadly, it was all too real. Velazquez was lucky. He suffered only bumps and bruises. Cordero, however, was hurt much worse.

Cordero’s right elbow and four of his ribs were broken. But the champion jockey had also suffered massive internal injuries.

That night, Cordero told his wife, Marjorie, a former jockey who then trained racehorses, to let the doctors know that he could feel he was bleeding internally.

The doctors operated on Cordero, removing his spleen, while the two families prayed he would survive.

Cordero had nightmares for five straight nights in which all he could see were the orange silks he’d been wearing somersaulting through the air. He spent nine days in intensive care, and 31 days in the hospital overall before the doctors allowed him to go home.

The accident essentially ended his riding career. Still, more than three years later, in 1995, the ever-resilient Cordero briefly returned to the saddle in Puerto Rico and the .US. before officially retiring.

Today, Cordero serves as Velazquez’ agent, and the pair continue their very close relationship.

John Velazquez (left) and Angel Cordero (right)
Photo by Benoit Photo

From left to right; Andy Beyer, John Velazquez and Angel Cordero.
Photo by Equi-Photo


Leave a Comment:


Angel was one of the best..I am glad he made it through the awful accident and it warms the heart to see him out and about still involved in racing.I am sure Johnny V has learned a ton of stuff from Angel that others would love to have the access to...he was that good!

11 Jan 2012 4:59 PM

Thank you so very much for sharing this incredible story with us.  

12 Jan 2012 10:40 AM
Mauricio Farias

Is hard to define who is or was the best, I spend many years working as a jockey agent and handicapping in New York and I have a chance to see all the good ones, nobody was better than Angel

his fiercely competitive nature,his style and knowledage of the game plus his love for the horses make him diferent from any other rider I ever see. At that time when you came to NY. you have to meet Woody, The  Chief,and Angel.

Mauricio Farias  CHILE.

12 Jan 2012 4:14 PM
Steel Dragon

Great stuff, Paul. My favorite Cordero ride took place in the incredible '76 Ladies 'Cap. Angel rode Bastonera II with his broken wrist in a cast - and nipped the excellent Proud Delta (Jorge Velasquez) on the wire. As I remember it, those two had dueled much of the way a la Jaipur-Ridan.

12 Jan 2012 11:40 PM
Sue MacGray

Thanks for this story on one of the sport's greats. It IS good to see him still around and involved. It's only natural that Johnny V is so successful with a mentor like Angel.

13 Jan 2012 8:33 AM

Wonderful article Paul, thanks.  In my opinion, Angel was one of the very best, if not the best, jockey I have ever witnessed.  You describe him well.  

Watching him over the years, I remember especially his gutsy, go to the front ride on Bold Forbes in the 1976 Derby.  On the lead against the highly touted and speedy Honest Pleasure, Angel dared HP to come and get him and when HP decided to go after him at the top of the stretch, Angel let out another notch on Bold Forebes and held HP clear to the wire.  What a masterful ride.

This is nothing against the other riders who eventually rode Spend a Buck, but Angel is the only one who knew how to get him warmed up or better said "fired up", before a race. His ride on Spend a Buck in the 1985 Derby was another front running masterpeice.

We were blessed to be at the Derby last year and attended the Night of Silks fundraiser for the Permantly Disabled Jockeys Fund that evening.  I was able to meet Johhny V. and Angel and asked Angel to sign my autograph sheet which he graciously did.  The PDJF is a worthy cause for those jockeys in need.

Thanks again for reminding us of one of the truly greats in this sport.

13 Jan 2012 9:28 AM

It wasn't his last ride.  In October, 2005, he rode Indian Vale in the Cotillion Handicap at Philadelphia Park.

13 Jan 2012 10:12 PM

Next time I want to whine about a ride I don't like I will remember the courage of Angel and those who share his calling.  Bottom line...they have a dangerous job and challenges on balancing weight and strength that we mere mortals can't imagine.  I wish we rode races here at higher weights like the Euros.  I used to own a blue collar "off-the-track" thoroughbred.  When someone asked me about him I responded "he can run faster than I can ride."  Jocks are among the most amazing athletes in the world and Cordero was one of the best.

14 Jan 2012 1:18 AM

These two guys have a long history together, one filled with friendship and loyalty to each other - something to which we should all aspire. The memory of this day is bittersweet but a memory nonetheless and a reminder of how short both careers and life can be. Thank you for the story.

16 Jan 2012 12:02 AM

just a simple thank you for this look back at a wonderful friendship

18 Jan 2012 12:32 PM

Great barticle, great man, great rider.

Hey TurfSpeculator- did you take the time to actually READ it?

25 Jan 2012 1:03 PM

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