It is worn down, stretched a bit thin in places, and bears the subtle scars of 40 years of use. Some of its stitching is frayed, but the smooth, well-oiled grain of the leather suggests there is more than meets the eye. Though it bears little resemblance to its slick and shiny modern cousins decorating the jockeys' chambers, the saddle commands a physical presence in the room, reaching out to grab at the imagination and whispering about the champions it has seen.
“It's a winning saddle,” said retired Hall of Fame Jockey Angel Cordero, Jr. “It's got to be one of the most winning saddles in the world.”
The flat, mud brown-colored saddle's legacy grew on the first Saturday in May when it was laid on the back of Always Dreaming beneath the Twin Spires. For the fifth time, the “old hard-back” was adorned with roses, sturdy as ever in that hallowed winner's enclosure.
Not only has the saddle been carried to victory by five different Kentucky Derby winners, but it has also won a number of Breeders' Cup races and traveled across the ocean to win the Dubai World Cup. Cordero had it made in the mid-1970's, and upon his retirement, gifted the use of the saddle to his protégé John Velazquez.
“A saddle is usually just another piece of equipment, but you always have something that was your favorite,” Cordero explained. “I had one light one and this one, and when I retired I got rid of all my equipment except for those two saddles.”
An old-style, hard-backed saddle, its full-length tree is composed of wood, fiberglass, and lead, to make it heavier. In the sport's top races, Thoroughbreds are asked to carry weights upward of 122 pounds, meaning light-weight jockeys like Cordero would have to add a lead pad under an ordinary saddle in order to make weight. That pad would sometimes cause the saddle to slip on the horse's back, as happened to Cordero in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup with Seattle Slew, the saddle shifted heading into the first turn, causing Cordero to momentarily lose a stirrup.
Cordero had this saddle custom-made to weigh in at a hefty 11 pounds, eliminating the need for additional weight. It was also designed with inner pockets to which more weight could be added, up to 18 pounds in total.
“I love that saddle,” he said. “I used to call it my best friend. When I was riding, I used to tell my valet ‘Don't forget to send me my best friend.'”
With Cordero, the saddle won three Kentucky Derbies — in 1985 with Spend A Buck, in 1976 with Bold Forbes and in 1974 with Cannonade. He also rode it to four Breeders' Cup victories and perhaps 100 other races during his 7,000-win career, which saw him take home a pair of Eclipse Awards in 1982 and 1983 and be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988.
The saddle graced the backs of Thoroughbreds like Seattle Slew, Slew o'Gold, Gulch, Sunshine Forever, Broad Brush, Life's Magic and All Along. Then in 1992, a severe wreck forced Cordero into an early retirement.
Around the same time, a bug boy from his native Puerto Rico had caught Cordero's eye. Velazquez showed promise, Cordero thought, and his premature retirement allowed the Hall of Famer to take up a new career as Velazquez's agent. He even moved the kid into his own home and began forging a promising relationship with budding trainer Todd Pletcher.
“He's like a son to me,” Cordero said of Velazquez. “When I retired, I told Johnny he could use (the saddle), because Johnny's very light. Then he started winning.”
Velazquez sits cozy in the saddle at the Derby finish line (Coady Photography)
In 2011, Velazquez rode his first Kentucky Derby winner in the saddle aboard Animal Kingdom, but it saw a number of successes before then, including Breeders' Cup victories with Speightstown, English Channel and Eldaafer. It carried him to a win in the 2005 Dubai World Cup with Roses in May, as well as a number of other Grade 1 victories.
“When I quit I was forced to quit,” Cordero said. “I feel that my soul went into Johnny's body to finish what I really wanted to do. He picked up the baton from me and he broke every record that I did at Saratoga. He got to the Hall of Fame and won a pair of Eclipse Awards. He's probably one of the greatest jockeys in the world, and I don't say that just because I work for him.”
Cordero sees the saddle as a physical representation of the bond he shares with Velazquez, and to this day the retiree loves seeing it come to the paddock. Even when Velazquez retires “in a decade or so,” Cordero plans to lend it to another up-and-coming rider to continue building on its legacy.
“The trainers like to see that saddle,” said Cordero. “That saddle is very hot, and the trainers love it. They know that saddle; Todd Pletcher especially loves that saddle.”
Trainer Tom Morley may have summed it up best, recalling his first Grade 1 win in last year's Ballerina on Twitter, saying: the saddle “sent shivers down my spine when I got to use it.”
It may not be as slick or as new as the rest of the saddles on the rack it shares in Velazquez's locker, but the “old hard-back” is the one partner he reaches for on racing's biggest days. He has added Breeders' Cup wins with Main Sequence and Wise Dan to the saddle's repertoire, and Cordero bursts with pride at the younger rider's accomplishments.
“But I'm more proud of him for the person that he is than the accomplishments that he's made,” Cordero said. “Anybody can win races if they've got the best horse, but to be a good person… He's good to his parents, he's good to his friends, he's good to his fellow jockeys. He is some kind of person. I always tell him that ‘Man, I wish I could have been like you.'”
Inspired by a Joe Clancy story from 2011, with special thanks to NYRA's Heather Pettinger.