08/18/2004 12:00AM

Emptiness no win could fill


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Angel Cordero Jr. has life by the neck. Heck, he always did. Charisma and confidence are simply part of the package. He rode 7,057 winners through talent and tenacity. He knows everybody, and if he doesn't he shouts out a nickname that's somewhere close. He can crack a joke quicker than most people can crack a smile. He breezes stakes horses for the best trainers - for fun. He books mounts for the leading jockey at the Saratoga meet, John Velazquez, earning from his percentage as an agent more than most jockeys make from their full cuts. As he walks the beat of Horse Haven on the Saratoga backside, he's a rock star.

Bobby Frankel wants to know how a horse felt underneath him. Jerry Bailey talks with Cordero about stewards and suspensions. Edgar Prado asks Cordero to sign a Peb sketch of Cordero aboard his second Kentucky Derby winner, Bold Forbes. Todd Pletcher's crew wants to know about his golf game. Dale Romans begs him for a call.

Cordero, wearing a porkpie hat and flak jacket, carrying a helmet and a condition book full of Pletcher horses, epitomizes success.

Then you ask one simple question.

"How's life?"

"Life sucks," Cordero said. "Business is great. Life sucks. I don't have a wife. I don't have a career."

Cordero, 61, lost his wife, Marjorie, Jan. 24, 2001. She was killed by a hit-and-run driver near their house in Greenvale, N.Y. Cordero has a plaque in the Hall of Fame, books rides for one of the best jockeys in the nation, and has enough friends to be voted into office - and nothing matters.

"Life is not good right now," Cordero said. "It will get better, I hope. Life is very difficult. Some people think life is easy when you make money. Some people think I'm happy because Johnny wins. I'm happy because he wins, but that doesn't make me happy."

Around the backside, Cordero plays a role - happy go lucky, laugh at the world. But it only hides the pain. Cordero recently relinquished his reign as the career leading jockey in Saratoga history to Jerry Bailey - big deal.

"When you have problems, money is not going to make you happy," Cordero said. "Money problems are no problems because the money is there. You just have to go get it. Personal problems are problems, especially ones you have to deal with by yourself. It's not like someone can help me. When you have the pain I got, nobody can help me. Not my kids, not my mother, not my best friend. They can feel sorry for me, but they cannot help me carry that."

Riding races and booking mounts are important only to a point - a reality never more apparent than at Saratoga this summer. Hall of Fame trainer

P.G. Johnson died at 78. Veteran owner and trainer Mike Freeman ended up in the hospital when one of his horses trampled him back in the barn. Jockey Mike Luzzi broke his leg on opening day when he bailed off a horse with a broken bridle. Jockey Jose Santos broke his arm before the meet started. Adrian Rolls, assistant to trainer Graham Motion, had a bad back one day and surgery for herniated disks the next.

"Somebody passes away or you lose something important," Cordero said. "It doesn't matter what I say - 'I know what you're going through.' No, nobody knows. Pain is different for everybody."

Cordero slept in his car when he first came to this country from Puerto Rico. He won three Kentucky Derbies, nearly died in an Aqueduct spill in January 1992 that effectively ended his riding career, and now helps Velazquez, whom he regards as a second son, in his pursuit of excellence. Through it all, he's found a family on the backside. He can talk about horses, races, jockeys, and trainers. But ask a general question about life, and suffering is the only thing he can talk about.

"Pains in life are different," he said. "I know everybody suffers when they lose a mother or a father, but we prepare for that. I wasn't prepared to lose what I lost. It still hurts. That's why life to me is not great. The job is great, my business could be no better. Life . . . I'm not looking forward to anything. No goal for me. Just work."

Cordero has heard all the sympathy lines, but none holds any ground.

"People say time heals everything," Cordero said. "Not yet. It will be four years. Not yet. I can't shake it."