Angel Cordero Jr. leaned forward, hunched his shoulders, squinted his eyes, pursed his lips, clenched his gnarled fingers and made that ancient, tried and true signal for a horse to go.
You know the noise, part smooch, part cluck, it squeezes out of the side of your mouth like a marble through a straw, starts with S and includes P…H…and a few more S’s, letters that signify speed to a Thoroughbred race horse. If you’ve ever breezed a horse, or kicked a cowpony to gallop across a field or urged a bet home from the grandstand, it’s that noise.
Cordero made that noise to Cannonade, Bold Forbes, Seattle Slew, Spend A Buck, Codex, Open Mind, Slew o’ Gold, Manila, Broad Brush, Gulch, Groovy, Pine Tree Lane and so many others.
This time, Cordero was sitting in a golf cart behind the Morning Line Kitchen, 27 years since retiring, 47 years since he went 6 furlongs in 1:08 to set a Saratoga track record in the Skidmore Purse aboard Spanish Riddle.
“Little chestnut horse. He was quick. Very quick,” Cordero said. “He went to the lead. He was a good frontrunner, he loved to be there and he was a good mudder, too. A very good mudder. That day, he was gone from the beginning.”
That’s when Cordero was asked what he did from post 2, against five rivals in front of 16,055 fans.
“I sent him to put him on the lead,” said Cordero, offering his Hall of Fame cluck and smooch. “Maybe 50, 60 yards, until he got running. After that I just sat. I never got a hold of him to slow him down, just sat on him, he’ll settle.”
That’s when Cordero pulled his shoulders back, away from the steering wheel, bracing, hovering, stone still and offering the quintessential cue to slow down a horse, a long, drawn-out whooooaaaahhh.
“Once he got running, then I just sit,” Cordero said. “Some horses are quick out of the gate, some horses it takes a while to get running. He was quick out of the gate, there wasn’t much to do with him once he got in front. Just sit.”
Spanish Riddle, a 3-year-old son of Ridan, did the rest, ripping through the first quarter-mile in :22 and a half-mile in :44 3/5 seconds (remember this was before decimal fractions), drawing off to win by 8 lengths, smashing the previous mark of 1:09 1/5, set by Comfrey three years earlier.
“When he turned for home, he would kick,” Cordero said. “That particular day, oh, he kicked.”
Trained by Lucien Laurin, Spanish Riddle kicked and kept kicking, establishing a track record that was equaled once (Speightstown in 2004) and finally broken by Imperial Hint in the Vanderbilt Saturday.
“That horse was brilliant,” Cordero said of Imperial Hint. “It’s a long time since you seen a horse like that. He set off of them and blew by them with a hold like that, usually you have to ride them to catch up. He’s a good horse. It was unbelievable the other day.”
While reminiscing about Spanish Riddle and respecting Imperial Hint, Cordero conjured up the fastest he ever rode, mentioning Pine Tree Lane but settling on Groovy. The Texas-bred made 26 starts, all in stakes, beginning with a debut win in the Forever Casting Stakes at the Meadowlands, somehow survived the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before focusing on sprints. Cordero won the Roseben, True North, Tom Fool, Forego and Vosburgh in seven rides aboard the son of Norcliffe.
“He wasn’t quick the first sixteenth of a mile, but as soon as he ran a sixteenth of a mile he was gone. Gone,” said Cordero. “He would open up 7, 8 lengths on the backside, he would toss up a :21, you look back and nobody was there. He never finished but he managed to stay far enough in front to win, he was walking the last part, on the wrong lead all the time but he was so far in front it was no worry, no one could come close.”
Sounds like Spanish Riddle 47 years ago.
“Everybody was surprised,” Cordero said. “We thought he had a good chance to win but to run that fast…it was one particular day that he got up on the right side of the bed. I don’t remember him putting a race like that before or after it.”
Asked if he knew how far in front he was, Cordero laughed.
“No, I was afraid to look back,” he said.
Asked if he knew how fast he had gone that day, Cordero cackled.
“I knew he run big but I didn’t realize he went that fast,” he said. “When I came back, I thought maybe the teletimer wasn’t working. You just didn’t see those numbers in New York.”
Well, not until Saturday.