A year ago Sunday, Angel Cordero was being rushed to a New York hospital, his leg broken, his liver mashed and his career apparently over. Riding again was the least of Cordero's concerns, he was just worried about living.
On the anniversary of that horrible spill at Aqueduct, before 67,440 fans at Santa Anita, Cordero was going through a different kind of fear. After waving his whip in the air just past the finish line, a triumphant beau geste in honor of Broad Brush winning the Santa Anita Handicap, Cordero was afraid that he hadn't won the $1 million race after all.
"It took such a long time for them to make it official," the 44-year-old jockey said. "After a while I said to myself that I'd just be satisfied with a dead heat."
The wait was worth it--$550,000 to Broad Brush's owner, Robert Meyerhoff of Baltimore, and at least 10% of that for Cordero--as Broad Brush outfinished Ferdinand by a millimeter rather than a nose in the closest and perhaps the most thrilling of the 50 Big 'Caps.
No one but his immediate family may remember, but Hopeful Word was third, 6 1/2 lengths behind the first two, and Nostalgia's Star finished a neck behind him in fourth. Snow Chief, who held the lead in a furious speed duel with Epidaurus, Ferdinand's entrymate, and Bedside Promise after three-quarters of a mile, wound up fifth as the second betting choice in the nine-horse field.
"This paid the shipping bill," said Dick Small, Broad Brush's trainer. Broad Brush, who finished second in the San Fernando and third in the Strub Stakes after coming West from Maryland in January, had gone home to Pimlico to train for the Big' Cap and arrived back at Santa Anita only last Wednesday.
With him came Small, wearing a dilapidated brown felt hat that he brought out of the closet, thinking it might be luckier than the one he had been using.
Broad Brush, running 1 miles in 2:00 3/5 on a track that had changed from good to fast earlier in the day, was the fourth betting choice and paid $16.40, $5.40 and $4. Ferdinand, part of the favored Charlie Whittingham-trained entry, paid $3 and $2.60 and Hopeful Word returned $4.60.
Before Broad Brush hit the wire just a bob of the head before Ferdinand, Cordero had all sorts of reasons to believe that this was going to be another case of California dreamin' on the the part of Small and Meyerhoff.
--Intimidated by horses outside him, Broad Brush pulled himself back in the early going, and started climbing down the backstretch every time the dirt from the leaders hit him in the face.
--After being farther back than he wanted, Cordero brought Broad Brush up alongside Ferdinand in mid-stretch, but then his mount pricked his ears straight up, let loose of the bit and acted as though he was finished running.
"He was still running straight," Cordero said of the horse of a thousand moves. "But I thought that here we go again, another loss by a nose."
A few years ago, a survey had shown that Cordero, over a five-year period, won 60% of every photo finish he was in.
"But with (Bill) Shoemaker, I don't need no survey," Cordero said. "He wins a pretty good percentage of his photos, too."
Shoemaker, aboard Ferdinand, was trying for his 12th Big 'Cap win and Whittingham was shooting for his eighth overall and third in a row.
The uncharacteristic early move by Ferdinand--four wide, he was challenging the early pace-setters down the backstretch and took the lead on the turn--and the three pounds he was spotting Broad Brush may have made the difference.
"There was nothing Bill could do about being where he was," Whittingham said.
"The horse was pulling him hard and he just had to let him go. I thought we had won. Did you ever see a horse like this (Ferdinand) run as hard as he did that long and still have something left for the drive? He was running on the muscle all the way around."
Although Cordero returned to action last summer, in time to lead the Saratoga jockey standings for the 11th straight time, there was still talk in Florida early this year that he had lost some of his verve.
His rides in just the last eight days should squelch those skeptics. A week ago Saturday, he won the Flamingo at Hialeah with Talinum; the next day he was at Santa Anita to capture the Santa Margarita Handicap with North Sider, another longshot like Broad Brush; and the day before the Big 'Cap, he was at Aqueduct, winning the Swift Stakes with Why Not Try.
In seventh place after three-fourths of a mile, still nine lengths off the lead, Broad Brush appeared to be the least likely horse to be added to that list.
"He started moving at the three-eighths pole, and then he made a big run," Cordero said. "But still, I thought when we got to Ferdinand, he would take my horse's heart out. This is one of the best horses I've ever ridden, but with him you can't plan your ride."
Which is why, each of the seven times he's ridden Broad Brush, Small's instructions have been uncommittingly terse.