10/16/2008 12:00AM

Pain is the name of this game

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Angel Cordero Jr. was driving to the Meadowlands on the afternoon of Oct. 3 to make a special appearance with fellow Hall of Famers Laffit Pincay and Pat Day. The three of them have been on tour recently to celebrate their historic participation in the tumultuous first running of the Breeders' Cup Classic, when Day and Wild Again edged Pincay, aboard Gate Dancer, and Cordero, who rode Slew o' Gold.

Along the way, Cordero got the call that the jockey he represented, John Velazquez, had gone down hard in a race at Keeneland. Furious phone work ensued, and before Cordero knew it he was on a plane bound for Kentucky.

There was a happy ending. Velazquez suffered a concussion, but was able to return to competition the following week. As his friend and agent, Cordero breathed a deep sigh of relief and patched up the brief crack in the Velazquez business. A large bullet had been dodged.

"He got very lucky," Cordero said. "Any time you go down in a race and you don't break any bones you're lucky. Bruises come with the business. But when you break bones you miss time, you gotta wait for them to heal. Your business goes to pieces. Your mind goes to pieces.

"It's tough to get hurt any time, but this is one of the worst times - this one and Derby time," he went on. "You're pointing all year around for Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup. Anyway, he's not just my boss. He's like my son, like one of my children. When he gets hurt, it hurts me in a different way than if he was just my rider."

To feel Cordero's pain would take some time. By his count, he suffered 24 major injuries during the course of a career that began in his native Puerto Rico in 1960 and ended with his retirement in 1992. Along the way he won 7,057 races, including the Kentucky Derby three times, three national championships, two Eclipse Awards, and a place in the Hall of Fame.

In addition to representing Velazquez, a two-time Eclipse Award winner in his own right, Cordero rides horses each morning for trainer Todd Pletcher. In this capacity, Angel is currently on the scene at Santa Anita, where the Pletcher contingent for the Breeders' Cup is going through its final preparation. Also, on Saturday, Cordero plans to ride in a real live horse race.

Cordero is one of eight retired Hall of Famers suiting up in the Living Legends Race, along with Jerry Bailey, Pat Day, Sandy Hawley, Julie Krone, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens, and Jacinto Vasquez. Call it an encore, a wild risk, or a full-speed old-timers game. Whatever you call it, the race is not an exhibition. Officials have been convinced that all eight riders know their stuff, which means gambling is both allowed and encouraged.

Cordero will be 66 on Nov. 8. This makes him the oldest Legend in the race. If this bothers him, he doesn't let it show. Besides, such an event is a no-lose proposition. Even if he gets hurt, he won't be missing any action.

"It was always bothering me bad when I got hurt and lost business," Cordero said. "John takes it pretty good. I remember last year at Saratoga he went down five times in one week. I never had that happen to me - never saw that happen to any jock. In the last one, they sprung the latch, the horse went up in the air and he came off. When he hit the ground, he was kind of smiling a little bit, like, 'Man, not again.' He was sore, but he kept riding. And he didn't let it affect his mind. The pain you can take. But to erase the moment out of your head is the important thing."

Cordero has thought a lot about pain and its effect on the professional athlete. He earned the right. A fall in 1986 nearly killed him. The damage of 1992 ended his career.

"Whenever the doctor told me, 'If you can take the pain, you can ride,' that was like a winner," Cordero explained. "It's like fighters who can get hit and get up off the ground and continue fighting. Or football players who get a lot of injuries, who can still perform. I rode with broken ribs. I rode with broken fingers. And there's nothing more painful than to ride with broken ribs. When you pass the wire and you have to let the air out, that's when you really feel it. I did it a couple of times and I'm sorry I did. But I did it.

"In your mind you're like a sore old horse," Cordero added. "You could be sore, but when you hit the track you forget all about it. You might win and come back limping. But you still win."

The other seven Hall of Famers with Cordero on Saturday could say the same thing. The litany of their collective injuries is nearly as impressive as their mountain of career accomplishments. They won 49,163 races and rode for more than 230 years.

"I always believe in destiny," Cordero added. "When your time comes, it comes. It's not like you've been unlucky, or careless. I was down 24 times, and my mother kept telling me God was sending me messages to quit. I told her, 'Mommy, God doesn't send messages. He either takes you or he doesn't.' "