Preakness Week was not coming up black-eyed Susans for Angel Cordero Jr. For several days prior to the race, the 37-year-old jockey had been keeping one step ahead of reporters who wanted to ask him about his alleged involvement in a race-fixing scandal. Then came Saturday and a chance to forget his troubles with a trip to the winner’s circle at Baltimore’s Pimlico track. But even Cordero’s 4¾-length Preakness victory aboard the speedy California colt Codex turned out to be clouded with controversy. No sooner had Codex’ number gone up as the winner than a furious debate began over whether Cordero had fouled the favored filly, Genuine Risk. Finally Cordero’s composure dissolved into farce. “I did it,” he joked on the telephone to a fellow jockey. “I meant to kill Genuine Risk, you know. I pulled a knife and a machine gun on her and I started shooting.”
Cordero’s sarcasm was understandable—and possibly justified. Pimlico stewards quickly rejected a complaint by Genuine Risk’s jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, that Cordero had struck her beside the right eye with his whip, then sideswiped her. But the dispute tarnished Cordero’s biggest victory in four years and sent him home to New York smarting—only to face more questioning about the alleged race-fixing scheme. Two days after the Preakness, a New York federal court jury found former jockey Con Errico guilty of fixing races throughout the Northeast. The verdict could eventually affect Cordero, since the key prosecution witness in the Errico trial has testified that some of racing’s leading jockeys—including Cordero and Vasquez—agreed to pull their mounts for a price. Still, Cordero says he is unconcerned. “People think I am under pressure,” he says. “I’m not. I didn’t do nothing.”
The feisty Cordero is no stranger to controversy—and no shrinking violet on the track. “We’re friends outside, Cordero and me,” says Vasquez. “But when we get in a race, we’re different persons.” Last year a bumping incident involving Cordero and jockey Ronnie Franklin turned into a bitter off-track feud that culminated in name-calling and fistfights. Still, despite his fiery reputation—or perhaps because of it—some racing insiders question whether Cordero would ever deliberately throw a race. “He has a dominant will to win,” said one New York State racing official. And Cordero is not exactly suffering by running honestly. His jockey’s 10 percent share of the purse has earned him more than $500,000 each of the past three years.
Cordero does concede that the Preakness flap and the accusations against him are “tough on my family.” The son of a Puerto Rican jockey, Cordero married his hometown sweetheart, Santa, and brought her to New York with him in 1965. They have two children, Tommy, 16, and Merly, 14, and Cordero has begun to worry about the effect of the publicity on them. “When they were young,” he says, “I didn’t want them coming to the races too much. I knew my son was going to be too big to be a jockey, and I didn’t want the girl hanging around the racetrack. But they hear things—and my daughter came crying to me, ‘Daddy, they say you’re a crook.’ She’s very sensitive.” Cordero believes he is being hounded because he is Hispanic. “If Steve Cauthen had ridden Codex, or Bill Shoemaker, people would have said how great they rode him—because they are Americanos; they are the Great White Hopes.”
Next week Cordero will ride Codex again—this time in the Belmont Stakes, the third and final jewel of the Triple Crown. Genuine Risk is expected to start too, setting up a dramatic replay of one of the most contentious horse races of the decade. Angel Cordero has vowed to put the whispering behind him, and to concentrate on only one thing. “I’m going to do good,” he says. “I’m strong and I’m healthy. They don’t want to give me credit, that’s the problem. But all I have to do is keep winning.”