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Angel Cordero rides into racing's sunset

By FRED LIEF UPI Assistant Sports Editor

NEW YORK -- Jockey Angel Cordero Jr., sidelined since he was nearly killed in a January spill, retired Thursday, ending one of the great riding careers in thoroughbred racing.

The 49-year-old Hall of Famer made the anticipated announcement at a Manhattan news conference, across the river from the Aqueduct and Belmont race tracks he ruled with swaggering authority for a generation.

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Dressed in a blue suit, Cordero said he and his family and doctor agreed it was time to put the silks away. He now plans to become a horse trainer.

'I'm really gonna miss riding,' he said. 'But I'm gonna stick with racing.'

Cordero, in the uncharacteristic position at 5-foot-3 of towering over a microphone, then choked with tears. He turned to the side, taking a moment to compose himself.

'I did everything I set out for,' he continued. 'I hope I can accomplish as a trainer what I accomplished as a rider.'

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A no-nonsense rider with a delicate hold on the reins, Cordero grew up around the tracks in Puerto Rico, where in 1959 he became an apprentice at age 17. He went on to win 7,076 races, third on the all- time list behind Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr.

'Entering a race I always had a clear conscience that I could win even if the horse was 100-1,' he said. 'I figured if he's in the race, I've got a chance.'

Cordero was in plenty of races. He won three times at the Kentucky Derby (Cannonade, 1974; Bold Forbes, 1976; Spend a Buck, 1985), twice at the Preakness (Codex, 1980; Gate Dancer, 1984) and once at the Belmont (Bold Forbes, 1976). He kicked home four at the Breeders' Cup.

Cordero added to the treasure chests of legions of owners, with his purse totals approaching $165 million.

He rode the best horses of his day -- Affirmed, John Henry and Seattle Slew ('the best by far).' He remembered his first win at El Commandante in San Juan. He called his Derby run aboard Bold Forbes his finest race and deemed it a privilege to learn his trade from Eddie Arcaro.

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'Winning the Kentucky Derby has got to be the biggest thrill, and I've had the pleasure three times,' he said. 'In the Breeders' Cup there are great prices, but the Kentucky Derby is everybody's dream.'

Cordero was no elegant horseman. He rode hard and other jockeys knew he was on the track. In the 1980 Preakness, he rode Genuine Risk right out of the race. The railbirds always let Cordero know how they felt, but Cordero didn't care.

'A lot of the time I lost my temper, but I'm only human,' he said. 'I can walk to the clubhouse or the grandstand and know I'm not gonna get attacked. I'm not afraid of anybody. As long as they come to the track and bet, I can take the booing.'

The railbirds, and everyone else, will be cheering June 13 at Belmont Park, now designated 'Angel Cordero Day.'

'One of the smallest people I know is also one of the biggest,' said Jerry McKeon, president of the New York Racing Association.

Cordero was one of the oldest jockeys riding when he nearly lost his life Jan. 12. He was coming around the far turn at Aqueduct aboard Grey Tailwind when the horse tumbled and Cordero went flying, his body whipping around the rail support.

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He broke an elbow and four ribs and smashed his kidneys and small intestines. His spleen had to be removed. He was in the hospital 31 days, one for every year he has been riding.

'In the first 48 hours we didn't know if Angel would be with us,' Dr. Gary Wadler said.

Wadler said it was a 'mutual decision' to stop racing. He said if there were any further damage to Cordero's abdomen, 'I don't think we'd be here as we are today.'

Cordero has worked hard at his therapy and regained his weight. His wife Marjorie is a trainer and Cordero is up early and at the stables.

'I don't have as much energy as I used to,' he said. 'But I get out on the pony with my wife and move around pretty good.'

Cordero says he told only a few jockeys he was leaving. Pincay wished him well, and Pincay knows what Cordero is going through. On Wednesday, at Hollywood Park, he won on his first mount after a month-long layoff. It was the 11th time Pincay had broken his collarbone.

Marjorie Cordero, for one, is relieved she no longer will have to worry about her husband and wreckage on the track. She says it took some convincing at the hospital bed to get Cordero to think seriously of retirement.

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'We've been in limbo the last few months,' she said. 'I'm just glad it's over and now we can get on with our lives again.'

For Cordero, that means work of a different sort at the barns. He has been around horses his whole life and places no worth in the notion that riders make poor trainers. He says the key is to surround himself with the right owners. He insists he is ready.

'The only way I would ever ride again,' he said, 'is if I have a horse in the Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup and the jockey gets sick before the race.'

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