Retired Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero, now agent to jockey Johnny Velazquez, doesn’t often enjoy coming to the track on the big days of racing. It’s partially because of the hassle and the throngs of people he has to deal with, but it’s also largely due to his roller coaster emotions.
“When I watch Johnny ride, I am so proud—I feel like he’s my son,” said Cordero, who has five children of his own, though none have taken a special interest in racing. Cordero joked how he was yelling so loud when Velazquez and Animal Kingdom crossed the wire first in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) that he felt he may have a heart attack.
“When I saw him coming down the stretch (in the Derby), I started yelling and my heart started swelling," he said. "I ran all the way to the winner’s circle and the tears were coming. I think I was more happy than Johnny was. He didn’t show any emotion—he was so cool.”
While wearing his heart on his sleeve is part of Cordero’s charm, he sometimes wishes he could pull himself together during the big moments—a trait that seems to come easy for Velazquez. After his emotional Derby Day, Cordero decided to watch both the Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont (gr. I) from the comfort of his own home in Long Island, N.Y.
Cordero sees a lot of similarities between himself and Velazquez in terms of their riding styles and determination, but the ability to control emotions is their major difference, he said.
“(As a jockey), I was soft spoken, but I would blow my temper,” said Cordero, a native of Puerto Rico who during his riding career won the Kentucky Derby three times, the Preakness twice, and the Belmont once. He also won four Breeders’ Cup races. “That’s not (Johnny), though. I used to mess up and stir some people up—I was wild. Sometimes I wish I could have been more like Johnny.”
Cordero had never considered becoming a jockey’s agent before he took over Velazquez’ book in the early 1990s. While he understood the basics behind an agent’s role, he never realized the verbal abuse an agent sometimes took on his jock’s behalf. But upon the advice of people he respected in the industry, such as trainer David Donk, Cordero agreed to represent Velazquez, an opportunity for which he will always be grateful.
“God put him in front of me…I finished my career with him and started a new career with him,” said Cordero, who hung up his riding tack following a serious riding accident at Aqueduct in 1992. The timing was perfect, as fellow Puerto Rican Velazquez had just begun racing on the New York circuit and needed an agent.
“When he’s on a horse, it’s like I’m on a horse,” said Cordero of Velazquez, who has nine Breeders’ Cup victories in addition to his Derby score and runner-up finish to Shackleford in the Preakness. “Watching him ride, it’s like I know the move he’s going to make. But he’s also doing things I’ve never done—he’s picking up where I left off.”
Cordero noted the similarities between himself and Velazquez’ riding styles: “He’s very good out of the gate—the way he rides. He also has a strong finish…he keeps his composure, but he can fight." Cordero added that Velazquez is also very versatile—winning from the lead or coming from behind, but that he is a “cleaner” rider than Cordero was.
He further described Velazquez, a husband and father of two, as “very sensitive” and a “perfectionist.”
“Owners said that when he comes back, he knows when he did something wrong and he admits it,” Cordero said.
Some of Velazquez’ other positive qualities according to Cordero is the fact he’s a quick learner and swiftly developed into a quality rider upon his arrival in the United States from Puerto Rico in 1990.
“He came here knowing nothing—no English—and he got hurt a lot (while riding), but he’s a warrior, and he’s got such a big heart,” said Cordero of the jockey, who has now won 4,582 races from 25,620 mounts.
“He’s never looking for time off. He rode three races back-to-back once. He got hurt in the second race, came back, and rode in the next race.”
As Cordero watches Velazquez ride Animal Kingdom in the third leg of the Triple Crown June 11, emotions are sure to flow. Whatever the outcome, however, one thing will remain constant—Cordero’s sense of pride in the jockey whose talents he helped nurture.
“Johnny is like part of my family more than my boss,” Cordero said. “When he’s riding, I look at him like I’m riding in a race. It’s something I used to do, and now someone that’s close to me can do it as well. It makes me proud.
“(Velazquez) feels confident (about the Belmont) because he knows Animal Kingdom is coming in nice and confident,” Cordero continued. “The horse looks good, he’s been training good, and I just hope he makes it to the race in one piece. The distance is well suited for him, and he’s been very consistent. I just have to put my trust in him and Johnny. Luck is a big factor in any game…you need ability and luck, and on Saturday, we hope we have both.”