By Bill Finley
As a dark-skinned native of Puerto Rico trying to break into U.S. racing in the early Sixties against a largely white rider colony in New York, Angel Cordero Jr. may have faced more racism than anybody working in racing today. It happened to him inside and outside of the sport.
More than 50 years later, much has changed in racing and Cordero said he was proud of the strides Hispanic jockeys have made. At most tracks, they dominate the riders' standings. But Cordero said there remains a problem for the jockeys from Spanish-speaking countries, who have not been given a chance to succeed in racing once they have retired.
That could change in the years ahead as more and more Hispanic riders retire, but, for now, racing's executive offices and stewards' stands are, as a whole, definitely lacking when it comes to the hiring of all minorities.
“They have a lot of jobs they could give to jockeys, like stewards,” he said. “You have three stewards at every track and at least one of them should speak Spanish. There are lot of jobs that a jockey could have when they retire. We don't have a chance on the track to get a good job, the Spanish guy or the Black guy. I know it is true. I don't see any Black or Spanish people working in one of those important jobs.”
It's a matter of politics, Cordero said. Too often, the hiring of racing officials or track executives is not based on what you can do but who you know. That doesn't help minorities.
“So many of them are political jobs and I think that's why they don't hire Spanish people to important jobs,” he said. “It's tough for these jockeys to get a job on the racetrack. When you retire you are retired.”
Cordero, who is the agent for Manny Franco, works the New York circuit, which may have the most diverse group of stewards in the sport. There is a Hispanic (Braulio Baeza Jr.), a female (Dr. Jennifer Durenberger) and a white male (Brook Hawkins). But at many jurisdictions, the stewards stand is occupied by three while males.
Cordero also noted that there isn't much of a Hispanic presence on racing broadcasts. Laffit Pincay III, among the most visible people in racing television, is the son of the Hall of Fame rider and Panamanian native Laffit Pincay Jr. But no other Hispanics have broken through in his profession. Cordero said he would like to see others have a chance.
When Cordero first came to ride in the U.S. in 1962, having a Black or Hispanic in the stewards' stand or on television would have been inconceivable to him. His focus then was on navigating his way through society and breaking in in New York at a time when most top jockeys were white.
“When I first came here in the Sixties, racism was big,” said Cordero. “They wouldn't serve me in certain restaurants and in a lot of places I had to go to a different bathroom. I couldn't rent a house in certain neighborhoods.”
At the racetrack, Cordero said there were often reminders that he was different. He said he was more likely than a white rider to get a careless riding suspension and that he was told that conversing in Spanish in the jockeys' room was not allowed. He's also still bothered that investigators strip searched him before the 1971 Belmont looking for a battery and did not do the same to any other rider in the race. He said most owners were always very nice to him, but does single out a now-deceased Hall of Fame trainer who did not ride him, which Cordero always thought was because of the color of his skin.
But nothing could have prepared him for what he faced in 1980 after he won the Preakness aboard Codex, beating Kentucky Derby heroine Genuine Risk. On the far turn, Cordero, on Codex, forced Genuine Risk wide and many believed it was a case of rough riding that cost the popular filly the race. Afterward, Cordero was subject to threats on his life and said that many of the threats had racial overtones.
“I was getting all this hate mail. They said they were going to kill me and blow my house up,” he said. “In those letters, they would say 'you're a (n-word)' or 'go back to your own country.' They attacked my color a lot.”
The situation got so intense that, after he returned to New York, the NYRA stewards told him someone was threatening to shoot him during a post parade.
“One day the stewards called me and said I should get off the horses and go home because they had an anonymous call from someone saying they were going to shoot me in the post parade,” he said. “I told them that wasn't going to solve anything because they'd still be after me whenever I did come back and ride. They killed President Kennedy and he had people watching him. If they wanted to kill me, they'd kill me.
“They made me parade for one week all by myself. I'd come out of the jocks room first and spend five minutes on the track before the other jockeys came on the track. Instead of trying to fix the problem, they sent me out there all by myself as a target. If someone wanted to shoot me, they made it easier for them. They put a bullseye on me for a whole week.”
The retired rider said that if a white rider had been aboard Codex and did what Cordero did the controversy would not have been nearly as intense or so fueled by hate.
As he has watched the unrest spread over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, Cordero worries that many of the strides the country had made on race since he came here in the Sixties have been reversed.
“I think this country is going back to being very racist again,” he said. “There are too many Black people getting killed. These people have been unarmed. It would be different if the guy was armed and causing trouble. They arrest them and they beat them up and sometimes they kill them. It's a good thing so many people have cameras. Imagine if they didn't and all the things they could be getting away with.”
Despite the problems he faced early on his career and the hatred he had to deal with in the aftermath of the Codex-Genuine Risk race, Cordero said he does not believe that horse racing is a racist sport.
But he isn't willing to give the sport a complete pass. Particularly when it comes to hiring minorities to important management jobs, Cordero said he knows horse racing can do better.
Editor's note: As many people in the United States and around the world question their personal views on diversity and racial inclusion, we decided to look inwardly on our industry, and we found it wanting. So we asked a tough question to several industry members: How do we make racing at its highest level more diverse? If you'd like to participate in the series, email [email protected]