07/22/2007 11:00PM

How Santos cut Cordero's reign short

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - When it came to Saratoga, jockey Angel Cordero thought he was invincible. And for 11 straight summers he was exactly that, topping the jockey standings each year from 1976 to 1986.

But in the summer of 1987, a then upstart 26-year-old named Jose Santos did the unthinkable. He unseated Cordero as the top gun, winning the Saratoga riding title 26-22.

Though Cordero has been retired for 15 years and Santos is sidelined by a back injury, both will be the center of attention on different days during this Saratoga meet. On Thursday, the New York Racing Association will give all patrons who pay admission a commemorative Cordero bobble-head doll. On Aug. 6, Santos will be enshrined into racing's Hall of Fame, a place Cordero entered in 1988.

While those two occasions will certainly be special to both men, their competitive spirits still lead them back to what took place 20 years ago.

Santos, who had come within three wins of Cordero at the 1986 Saratoga meet, said he felt confident about his chances entering the '87 season. Santos had won 59 races at Belmont, good enough for second, two wins behind Randy Romero and two ahead of Cordero. Plus, Santos had Cordero's former agent, Frank Sanabria, in his corner.

"He wanted to do anything to get Angel's mounts to beat him," Santos said. "We went up there very confident we could beat Angel."

Back then, the Saratoga meet was only 24 days long and only three of those days passed without either Santos or Cordero winning at least one race. But it was a 0-for-25 slump during the last week of the meet that eventually cost Cordero his crown.

"Everything went wrong that week," said the 64-year-old Cordero, who works as an exercise rider for trainer Todd Pletcher and as the agent for jockey John Velazquez. "Races off the grass, the races didn't go for the good horses. Now you're behind and it's a short meet; that was a 24-day racing meeting. It's not like you could come back the next week."

Up until Cordero's slump, the two riders put on quite a show. When Santos won two races on the second day of the meet, Cordero answered with two on Day 3. On seven occasions, Cordero and Santos ran one-two - six in Cordero's favor - such as when Cordero, on Girl of My Dreams, beat Santos by a neck in a 1o3/8-mile turf race on Aug. 9 for his first lead of the meet, 6-5. But Santos won the last race of Week 1, forging a 6-6 tie.

Like prizefighters in a ring, Santos and Cordero countered each other throughout the four weeks. A one-length victory by Cordero on Freud over Santos and Leap for Joy on Aug. 14 left the two tied at 9. The second week ended with Santos up 12-11.

On Aug. 20, Cordero and Santos went back and forth on the final four races on the card. Cordero beat Santos by a neck in the sixth, Santos beat Cordero by a neck in the seventh. Cordero won the eighth - the Adirondack on Over All - while Santos won the nightcap. Unbeknownst to either one at the time, that victory put Santos up for good, 16-15.

"Angel and I were riding the best horses - favorites, second favorites, third favorites - and we were probably trying extra hard," Santos said. "It was a pretty tough meeting for Angel and I. He was concentrating on me and I was concentrating on him. He would follow me, I would follow him. Sometimes he'd have more speed than I had, or I'd have more speed than he had."

Said Cordero: "I wouldn't handicap anymore. I'd just see how his horse runs so I know where he's going to be. I'd look at the paper and say 'I guess I'm going to have to follow him.'"

On Aug. 22, the 16th day of the meet, Santos won two races while Cordero went winless in seven mounts, putting Santos ahead 20-16. The next day, Cordero was able to pull within two as he recorded wins on Dynaformer in a seven-furlong maiden dirt race for 2-year-olds, and Groovy in the Grade 2 Forego Handicap.

But the win on Groovy was Cordero's last win for a week. Meanwhile, Santos gradually opened up, especially after winning the last race on Aug. 28 and the first two on Aug. 29 to make it 25-19. Cordero finally broke his skid when he won the Saratoga Breeders' Cup aboard Talakeno. Earlier in the meet, Cordero had guided Talakeno to a victory over 1-5 Manila in the Bernard Baruch Handicap.

"All the way till I got the slump, I thought I was in good shape because I had good mounts, I was feeling good," Cordero said. "I don't know for what reason [I slumped], but I went too many days without winning to beat him. He was like a fighter, he kept throwing punches - that's what killed me mentally."

In the mid 1980s, Cordero had grown a pony tail and was often made fun of by his fellow riders. Heading up to Saratoga in 1987, Cordero said he made a deal with them.

"I told them kidding around if you beat me at Saratoga you can cut my pony tail," Cordero said. "The first thing [after the last race] I walk into the jockeys' room and he's waiting with a scissor for me. Of all the excitement, all the hard work winning the title, I would figure he was going to hug me. He's there waiting with a scissor. He enjoyed cutting my hair more than winning the title."

"It was a pleasure for me to cut Angel's pony tail," Santos said.

But an even greater pleasure to break the streak.