Editor’s Note/Update: This was written in 2011, in Saratoga for The Saratoga Special, a few months after John Velazquez won his first Kentucky Derby aboard Animal Kingdom. The saddle sat high on a rack in Velazquez’s area of the jocks’ room and was pulled down and discussed with reverence by Valazquez’s valet Tony Millan. Since then, Velazquez used the saddle in Main Sequence’s Breeders’ Cup Turf victory in 2014, in a second Derby score in 2017 with Always Dreaming and in a few other major races along the way. It only comes out for races with higher weights like the Triple Crown events and some others. The saddle, built for Angel Cordero Jr., has won five editions of the Kentucky Derby – three for Cordero (Cannonade in 1974, Bold Forbes in 1976 and Spend A Buck in 1985) and now two for Velazquez (Animal Kingdom and Always Dreaming).
• • •
They come in red, black, blue, two-tone mixtures. Some have initials stitched into them. Others might have fleecy seat covers. They're often glossy and shine like prom shoes.
But one, and only one, has won the Kentucky Derby four times.
The saddles used by Saratoga's jockeys have gone the way of most modern things. They're sleeker, cleaner, faster than those of the past. But one oldie is still hanging around the jocks' room. It shares a rack with several modern versions, but only comes out on special occasions.
It's sort of dirty brown/black, it weighs 9 pounds (with room for lead inserts to make it heavier). It cost $200 almost 40 years ago when custom built for a Hall of Famer. It's seen Churchill Downs, Dubai, Japan, Pimlico, Laurel, Arlington Park, Saratoga, Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, Belmont Park and any other major stop in Thoroughbred racing.
"It's a privilege to take care of it, to be responsible for it," said valet Tony Millan, the man in charge of the treasured leather. "That saddle will be in the Hall of Fame someday. Hopefully it's still got some life left in it though."
The saddle belongs to leading jockey John Velazquez, who inherited it from agent/mentor/coach Angel Cordero Jr. Cordero had the saddle made in the 1970s. It's a rarity in today's age - a full-tree, hard-back saddle. Cordero got it for major races when horses carried 126 pounds and above. With a heavy saddle, he could avoid using a lead pad, stay comfortable in the tack.
Thursday, he called it lucky and it's difficult to argue.
In its early days, Cordero and the saddle won the 1974 Kentucky Derby aboard Cannonade. Two years later, they did it again on Bold Forbes. Spend A Buck wore it - and the blanket of roses - in 1985. Cordero won more than 7,000 races. This saddle came out for 100 of them, maybe, but it was there for the biggies and has been aboard such standouts as Seattle Slew, Gulch, Gate Dancer, Slew O' Gold and others. Surely, it was aboard What A Summer for her victory - under 134 pounds - in the 1978 Fall Highweight Handicap.
"I won four Breeders' Cup races with it, three Derbies, the Belmont, the Preakness twice," he said. "It was built up for weight, so when you ride races like the Derby and some of the others at 126 pounds or more you can just use the saddle. A saddle sits better when you don't have to use a lead pad, that's why I got it made. Johnny uses it for the same reason."
The saddle's tree or inner support system is made of wood and fiberglass, but is also leaded to make it heavier. It's far bulkier than the everyday saddles jockeys use, but that's part of what makes it special.
Cordero used it during most of his Hall of Fame career, and when he retired in 1992, passed it on to Velazquez. With its new owner, the saddle has traveled the world - winning the Dubai World Cup with Roses In May, the Travers with Flower Alley and this spring the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. This summer at Saratoga, the saddle has been aboard Caixa Eletronica for two starter-handicap wins (at 127 and 131 pounds), Bridgetown (123) for a stakes score and Rattlesnake Bridge (126) for a runner-up effort in the Travers.
Millan sometimes feels like an old baseball coach - with a mitt from long ago.
"A lot of these kids coming around now don't know what a hard-back is," Millan said. "The tree is hand-carved. The guy who made that saddle took a lot of pride in it, not that the saddles that get made now aren't good - they're just different. When I came around, it was all saddles like this, leather boots, breaking out leather dye on the rub marks, polish, it's how you spent a good part of your day - taking care of the leather stuff. Now you just wipe it down and move on."
The saddle is basically all original, save for the billets (which have been changed several times) where the girth attaches, and shows its age. There's a notch or two on the right flap. The seat's a little worn, so is the very front. The stitching looks a little frayed. But the historic grain in the leather shows it's reverently cared for and appreciated like a member of the family.
"It's so old you don't even know what color it is anymore," said Cordero (to be fair, it's clearly a weathered mix of brown and dark brown). "We all get old, even the saddles. I like that it's still going though. I like to see it come to the paddock. Makes me feel younger."