The 2021 Grade 1 Keeneland Turf Mile
If you missed the 70’s and 80’s in horse racing, you truly missed some glory years when the Sport of Kings was so much more than what it has been reduced to today. If you missed those years, it is hard to put in perspective. However, imagine almost every Saturday having a “huge card” and major day feel to it. The track was crowded, even during the week, and there was almost always a buzz in the air.
Saratoga was the August place to be and the premier meet in the country. At 24 days, or 4 short weeks long, the racing was the most competitive in the world. It’s where everyone who was anyone in the game was, and where they wanted to win. Claiming races were few and far between and the optional claimer was not even on the racing secretaries’ radar yet. There was no need for them, as allowance races filled regularly. Horses ran through their conditions on their way to the stakes ranks. And the Spa cards often had stake quality horses running all week in non-winners of one, two, three, and even four allowance races. There was a good stake just about every day and there were no days, absolutely none, when the track was not packed.
Saratoga was the toughest meet in the country. When you factor that in, it makes Angel Cordero Jr’s streak of 11 straight riding titles at Saratoga, all that much more special. From 1976 through 1987, nobody was better at Saratoga than Angel. He was as dominant a rider as you could ever see, and everyone knew it.
Angel had no weakness on the back of a racehorse. He was aggressive, he was fearless, he was as good on the lead as he was off the pace. He would do things others didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t. He would open up 10 lengths and win by a nose. He would fall 10 lengths behind the last horse and win by a nose. He would speed pop the gate. He would outride any challenger and push the race riding limits to the max to get every single win he could. There was nobody you wanted your case money on more than Angel, and I know he considered that an honor.
When Angel rode, he not only rode his horse, but he rode the other riders’ horses as well. He knew all their strengths and weaknesses. He was ready to exploit any one of them. He knew who lugged in and who lugged out and he was sitting right where the hole would open. If it didn’t, he would open it. He would taunt riders during the race and get inside their heads. He was a fierce competitor, as one would have to be to take 11 straight titles at the Spa. He could switch hands faster than any rider and was equally adept with his right as with his left. He could get lower than anyone on a horse and carry one home when he had to. Angel once told me he loved to ride in the slop because other jockeys hated it. When the jockey’s room would fill up and it was raining and sloppy, the jockeys would complain, Angel loved it. It gave him an edge, not that he did not already have one.
After coming from Puerto Rico, Angel had a rough time in Saratoga in 1962, 63, and 64. He could barely afford a place to stay and had a hard time lasting the meet. That would change however, and those memories are part of what motivated him to dominate the Spa, as nobody before or after him has done.
Angel managed to win his first title in Saratoga in 1967. It would be 9 years later when he took the next one to begin his streak of 11. Angel told me it was hard work that propelled him there. He worked a lot of horses in the mornings, working harder than anyone else. Trainers recognized this and would ride him. Even trainers like Mack Miller, Sidney Waters, Elliott Burch and especially Allen Jerkens would ride Angel at Saratoga, even though they did not ride him as much downstate. They all pointed their horses, and they had good ones, for Saratoga, just as Angel pointed to it.
If you were fortunate to be at the track every day and watch this athletic dominance day in and day out, it was a treat. I have seen many riders in the groove, but nobody was better than Angel at the Spa.