Cup of Coffee: Partners

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John Nerud called Angel Cordero Jr. Three months ago, the 102-year-old Hall of Fame trainer called the 72-year-old Hall of Fame jockey, asking him to come see him at his house on Long Island. Cordero didn’t hesitate. When he arrived, Nerud handed Cordero a photo, it was Cordero’s 3,000th winner, Cordero had inscribed it to Nerud.

“I thought you should have it,” Nerud told Cordero.

Cordero thanked him and began peppering Nerud with questions.

“I interviewed him like I was working for the newspaper,” Cordero said. “I asked him who was the best horse, the best jockey, the best track, the best trainer…he was like (Allen) Jerkens, he remembered everything. He was very sharp.”

Like most good relationships, Nerud and Cordero gradually became friends and business partners in the afternoon. 

The greatest agent of any jockey, Cordero begged Nerud to give him a ride. Nerud wanted nothing to do with it. “Good morning,” was all Nerud offered Cordero.

Cordero, on crutches with a broken leg, approached Nerud yet again.

“Do you think if I overcome this, you could put me on a horse one time?” Cordero asked.

Nerud didn’t even look up from his condition book.

“You son of a…” Nerud said. “You’re always taking my horses out, battling me every race, one of these days, I’m going to choke you.”

Cordero could counter any move on the racetrack, he could also counter any comment.

“Let me ride one for you so you can choke me better,” Cordero said.

Weeks later, Cordero went back to Nerud’s barn. He had tossed the crutches.

“I survived,” Cordero said. “I survived.”

Still, no ride from Nerud.

Cordero was far from discouraged.

“Mr. Nerud,” Cordero said. “I had a dream I rode a horse for you.”

“That’s not a dream, that’s a nightmare,” Nerud retorted.

“No, it was a dream,” Cordero said. “You and me were laughing in the winner’s circle.”

Nerud finally relented and began to give Cordero a chance.

 “When he finally put me on a horse, we got so lucky, I was riding almost everything at the end,” Cordero said.

In 1978, Cordero beat Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew with Dr. Patches, bred and owned by the Nerud-steered Tartan Farm and trained by Nerud’s son Jan. Beforehand, Nerud didn’t want to take on Seattle Slew at The Meadowlands

“I don’t think I want to go there,” Nerud told Cordero. “I don’t want to make a fool of myself.”

Cordero picked up the whip.

“If you want to beat him, now’s the time, he’s only run two races in a year. Our horse is running good, Papa, we’ll beat him,” Cordero said. “I’ll give you a deal, if he don’t win, I’ll ride for you for free for a whole week.”

“You’re going to regret that,” Nerud said.

“Scout’s honor. I promise,” Cordero said. “I don’t win, I ride the whole week for free.”

Dr. Patches won in a photo. Cordero laughed, “I should have asked what do I get if he won.”

Cordero convinced Nerud to run Tartan’s Codex, trained by Wayne Lukas, in the 1980 Preakness against Genuine Risk

 “Mr. Nerud, you should run Codex in the Preakness,” Cordero said. “He’ll win, you can’t tell me he won’t beat that filly. Come on Mr. Nerud, let’s be famous.”

“I’ll think about it,” Nerud said.

Cordero and Codex beat Genuine Risk in the controversial renewal.

Nerud kept it simple, breezing horses a half-mile. He kept horse’s forelocks long, he didn’t use whips in the morning, he hated blinkers, abhorred tongue ties.

Cordero knew Acaroid needed the latter.

“Jan, you need to put a tongue tie on Acaroid,” Cordero said. “He’s choking.”

Jan scoffed. “Are you kidding? My dad would kill me, he hates a tongue tie, he hates blinkers.”

Cordero resorted to doing it himself, stuffing a tongue tie into his silks and putting it on Acaroid on the way to the start. After the race, he pulled it off and threw it under the rail. Cordero told Jan what he was doing.

“I don’t see anything, I don’t hear anything, I don’t want to know anything about it,” Jan said. “If my father knew that, he’ll kill you.”

 “I knooooow,” Cordero said. “Make sure you entertain him before the race so he doesn’t see me.”

Acaroid won four in a row, including the Grade 2 Lexington Handicap at Belmont Park, in 1981. 

Thirty-five years later, Cordero sat with Nerud and talked racing. It was the last time Cordero would see Nerud, who died Thursday. At least he got to ask questions.

The best horses he had ever seen, besides Dr. Fager? Kelso, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid.

Best racetracks? Hialeah, the old Jamaica, Saratoga, of course.

Best jockeys? Arcaro, Shoemaker and Cordero. “I said, ‘You’re saying that because I’m here with you,” Cordero said. “He said, ‘No, I believe that.’ “

Best trainers. Charlie Whittingham, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Ben Jones.

Cordero never mentioned the tongue tie on Acaroid. “No way,” he said. “No way.”