When horses from the Todd Pletcher barn go to the track at Churchill Downs for morning workouts, one exercise rider attracts more attention than the others.
Observers know his face but often ask themselves, "Is that Angel?"
The answer is yes, Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr. is exercising horses for Pletcher, the Eclipse Award winning trainer of 2004 who has three Kentucky Derby (gr. I) contenders -- Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) winner Bandini, Lexington Stakes (gr. II) winner Coin Silver, and Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) winner Flower Alley.
Cordero, 62, retired in the early 1990s after riding more than 7,000 winners. He won the Derby three times -- in 1974 with Cannonade, in 1976 with Bold Forbes, and in 1985 with Spend as Buck.
Cordero is now the agent for jockey John Velazquez, the number one rider for Pletcher. A Puerto Rico native, Velazquez was brought to the U.S. by Cordero and last year was the leading rider by earnings and also was voted an Eclipse Award.
To avoid any conflicts between his vocation as a jock's agent and his avocation as an exercise rider, Cordero is officially on vacation and has taken leave of booking mounts for Velazquez. To prepare for his one-month stint with Pletcher, Cordero lined up mounts for Velazquez in advance and has other agents enter the horses that his client will ride.
While he had been exercising horses for Pletcher in Florida, Cordero specifically wanted to be with the stable in Kentucky leading up to the Derby.
Working at Pletcher's barn, both as exercise rider and all around helper, keeps Cordero fit and fills a void that existed when he retired from riding.
Noting that his spleen has been removed, Cordero explained that his body's immune system causes him to catch colds easily. After spending two Christmases in the hospital due to colds, Cordero decided to upgrade his fitness, thus the return to exercising horses in the mornings.
"Since I have started exercising horses, I get a cold and I take something for it," just like everyone else.
As exercise rider, Cordero is in a good position to observe how Pletcher's horses are coming into the Derby.
"The three of them are doing very good," Cordero said. "They are peaking, and I am not saying that because I work with them. They are very happy and fit because t hey have been running since January."
As experienced as he is with horses, Cordero realizes t he unknown equation in the Derby is the race's unique 1 1/4-mile distance.
"The question about all these horses is whether they can go a mile and a quarter," Cordero said. "But we don't breed horses to go a mile and a quarter. We breed horses to go a mile. You never know which ones will get a mile and a quarter. There have been some good horses who did not win the Derby and there have been some horses who won the Derby that you never heard from again."
Cordero, who had a brief fling with training before he turned jockey agent after his retirement from the saddle, knows his place within the Pletcher organization.
"We talk about race riding and jockeys, and he likes to hear my stories from some of the horses I rode in the past, but I leave the training to him," says Cordero, who accompanied Pletcher to Keeneland for the afternoon races during that meet.
The retired jockey holds Pletcher, a former assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, in high esteem.
"Everybody is good in his own way, so it is hard to compare trainers. But Woody Stephens, Charlie Whittingham, Laz Barrera -- he's up there with them because of how much he has accomplished in such a short period of time. Everybody says 'well, he gets the best horses.' You work your way into the horses. You have to work into the good horses. They don't give them to you because you are good looking."
Noting that when he first started representing Velazquez he took the young rider to Pletcher's barn to get some work.
"I knew Todd when he worked for Wayne and I rode for Wayne. I took Johnny to the barn and told Todd, 'Some day you are going to be the champion trainer and I want you to have a champion jockey'. Little by little we worked our way in there. We ride 95% of his horses now. That is the way you get to the top. If he was already a name trainer it would have been harder to get on his horses. But we were there from the beginning. The combination just started to work."
On May 7, Cordero said he will be rooting for any of Pletcher's horses to win the Derby, not just Bandini, who will be ridden by Velazquez.
"When you spend this much time with the horses, they become like friends," Cordero said. "I told him (Pletcher) that if I don't win it for him, I would still like to see him win the Derby."
And on May 8, Cordero's "vacation" will be over.