Angel Cordero leaned on the wooden wall, watching but not watching the final two horses walk around the back ring at Keeneland Monday. A colt by Offlee Wild and a colt by Bernardini. Cordero looked at the one of them, “nice horse,” but he was miles, ages away from that horse, that moment.
“How’s the decision going?”
Cordero shook his head and stared at the ground.
“I hate it. I hate it,” Cordero said, sounding nothing like Lebron James.
Cordero, agent for jockey John Velazquez, still had the ride on two Derby horses. The undefeated Verrazano for Todd Pletcher and the streaking Orb for Shug McGaughey. Nice horses. Great clients.
“The horses are both so good. The trainers are both so good,” Cordero said. “You’re going to make somebody mad. I hate it. I hate it.”
By Wednesday, Cordero chose Verrazano, which was always the obvious choice. It’s jocks’ agent 101 – when faced with horses of equal talent, ride for your best client. No doubt, Cordero knew whom he was choosing Monday evening at Keeneland, actually inside the eighth pole of the Wood Memorial Saturday, but it’s always prudent to wait a few days for the poultice to be washed off. The talented colt vaults into Churchill, undefeated in four starts, going from debut maiden on New Year’s Day to Derby favorite by the first Saturday in May.
Orb has performed a similar trajectory, going from an Aqueduct maiden breaker in November to probable second choice for the Derby. Velazquez was always Verrazano’s rider, accepting yet another first-call assignment on another rocket from Pletcher. Velazquez met Orb after Joel Rosario was tied up with a prior commitment in the Fountain of Youth, accepting another invitation from McGaughey, who has always given Velazquez the opportunity to ride his good horses. Velazquez rides Grade I turf horse Point Of Entry for McGaughey.
Pletcher and McGaughey played it smart; don’t force anybody’s hand, don’t commit to a lesser rider (you can always get him), don’t demand a three-race commitment, wait it out, see what happens, don’t fret. When you have a good horse, you won’t get stuck with a bad rider. If you’re a good rider, you won’t get stuck with a bad horse.
“I know the decision will be made after Verrazano runs, I understand all that,” McGaughey said after the Florida Derby. “Obviously, we would love to have Johnny but if we don’t, we’ll find somebody to ride him if we get there. If there’s a conflict with Johnny, (Rosario) will be the first guy I go to.”
“I’m not worried about it until Saturday,” Pletcher said before the Wood. “I haven’t even thought about it. Hopefully, it takes care of itself.”
It did. And then nearly didn’t.
The day after the Wood, Katie Malone resented Velazquez’s cues to settle around the first turn of a New York-bred allowance, the filly threw her head and clipped heels, slamming Velazquez to the ground. The Hall of Famer cracked a rib and chipped a bone in his wrist. For a moment, it looked like Cordero’s decision might have been made – easier but harsher. Velazquez will miss three weeks but plans to be back for the Derby.
Velazquez rides Verrazano. Rosario rides Orb. The rest shuffle.
Nobody’s mad. Anguish, yes. Anger, no.