As torn and tattered as Puerto Rico has been by the twin sucker-punches inflicted by hurricanes Irma and Maria two years ago, the island’s almost preternatural ability to produce year after year the latest new wunderkid to electrify the saddle doesn’t appear to be diminished. Just ask Angel Cordero.
“I was watching the tapes of the practice races, and this kid jumped out at me,” said the former jockey, about 18-year-old Jean Carlos Diaz Jr. “He’s so much in front of the other kids.”
Diaz certainly has the pedigree for the job. His father, Juan Carlos Diaz, a perennial champion jockey in Puerto Rico, is the all-time leading rider there in stakes victories.
And so, when the younger Diaz revealed a nasty case of itchy feet — “The kid’s dream was to go to California,” said Cordero — the Hall of Famer, a good friend of Diaz senior, knew who to call.
“[Cordero] said, ‘Tony, I’ve got a very good apprentice from the jockey school in Puerto Rico. You’ve got to take this kid - he’s probably one of the best apprentices to go through the school,’” said jockey’s agent, Tony Matos, about the recent telephone call.
Racing’s flashiest tales
That Matos should by the one Cordero speed-dialed is hardly a case for Agatha Christie. Many moons ago, Cordero and Matos were a potent jockey-agent combo, mopping up a decade’s worth of big races on the East Coast.
But even without that personal connection, the decision had a touch of the no-brainer about it. For, over the course of five decades, Matos, 74, has ensured that his name, as agent to one top jock after another — Marquez to Cordero to Pincay to Desormeaux to Espinoza to Gomez to Stevens and a whole rolodex of talent in between — is woven into the sub-plots of some of the sport’s flashiest tales.
“I think he’s probably, pound-for-pound, the best agent around,” said Cordero, about a man he describes as an older brother. “I did have some good agents, but I think he’s the best, and still is one of the best. Look, he took a kid from Puerto Rico two years ago and made him a leading rider in California. That was unbelievable.”
‘I’ve been in racing all my life’
That young Puerto Rican import is, of course, Evin Roman, winner of the 2017 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice. The then 19-year-old became the first apprentice since 1949 to walk away with a riding title at Santa Anita.
“That gave me a lot of satisfaction,” said Matos, about Roman’s achievements, which only served to reinforce the agent’s reputation for unearthing those rough stones that need a little polish to become diamonds. “I like to develop the new bug boys - I like to develop their careers,” said Matos. “It’s a challenge.”
Before Roman, there was the likes of Christian Santiago Reyes (Eclipse Award Outstanding Apprentice in 2009). Before Santiago Reyes, there was the likes of Corey Nakatani (no Eclipse Award, but a damn fine young talent nonetheless in the late 1980s, early 1990s, thanks in no small part to the Wally Dollase-trained Itsallgreektome, the Eclipse Male Turf champ in 1990).
Matos’s first starry-eyed bug boy, however, was Frank Lovato, the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice of 1980 (and inventor-in-wait of the now ubiquitous Equicizer). By that time, Matos had been a jock’s agent for a decade. But, as he explained, “I’ve been in racing all my life.”
His grandfather, Antonio Matos, was a Puerto Rican owner, breeder, who bred winning machine Camarero, holder of a world record of consecutive victories — 56 in all — between April 1953 and August 1955. There’s a Graded stake named after grandfather Matos at the Camarero racecourse.
Antonio Matos’s son, Carlos, picked up where dad left off, becoming a leading owner and breeder on the island in his own right. Carlos Matos frequently raided the Kentucky sales rings. And it was in Kentucky that his son, Tony, went to college, to the University of Louisville, studying engineering and general administration.
The university is spitting distance from Churchill Downs. Looking for a little extra spending money, Matos started rubbing horses at the track for trainer Frank Childs, when the Hall of Famer was at the tail end of his glittering career.
Then, during Matos’s last year at college, “my dad had an apprentice riding for him, C.H. Marquez, who asked me to get him a job in Kentucky.” Matos used his connections at the track to secure Marquez a few mounts. “I didn’t even have an agent’s license.” And, after a bit of success, Matos dropped out of college, 15 credits short of graduating, to represent Marquez on a full-time basis.
A video of a younger Tony Matos (in the large spectacles), from his days on the East Coast when agent to Angel Cordero
The next few years took Matos on a busman’s tour of the East Coast — which included a period as agent to jockey ‘Chuck’ Baltazar — eventually landing in New York, where Bobby Frankel “introduced” him, Matos said, to a Puerto Rican rider by the name of Angel Cordero. The term ‘introduced’, however, is a little misleading.
“When I was a kid, Angel’s father trained horses and my dad was an owner. They would race us kids on the racetrack,” said Matos.
As Cordero puts it, “Tony always wanted to be a jockey when he was younger, but he was too big. I said to him, ‘first of all, you won’t find a helmet that fits you,’ because his head was pretty big for his body.”
As adults, the two joined forces to ride a ten-year wave of success, punctuated with two Kentucky Derby wins. The first came in 1974, when Cordero won the Derby on Cannonade, for trainer Woody Stephens, the sharecropper’s son who became master of his own trade.
‘You can’t beat my other horse’
That Derby victory was far from set in stone, however. Cordero was offered the mount on the not un-fancied Little Current, who he had partnered at two. What’s more, Stephens had another horse in the race, Judger, who he thought his best hope. “Woody told me, ‘you can’t beat my other horse,’” said Matos.
Add to the mix how Cannonade had raced only a week prior to the Derby, and the trainer was ambivalent about running Cannonade against Judger. Matos wasn’t, and the agent put the hard sell on Stephens, who caved and sent Cannonade to Churchill Downs, where the ‘rogue’ of a horse swept to a 2¼-length victory.
“I felt good that I could talk Woody into running,” said Matos. “Cordero got through every inch of the race.”
That last part is important, for there was a chock-full Derby field that day of 23 runners (the following year, the Derby was capped for the first time at 20). In finishing fifth, Little Current encountered more walls than you’ll find in a presidential address. But Lou Rondinello’s colt gained revenge in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
“In retrospect,” Matos added, because Little Current encountered “such an awful trip” in the Derby, “if I hadn’t talked Woody into running Cannonade, I might have won the Triple Crown.”
‘I’ve lost the Triple Crown twice’
Decades later, the Triple Crown would come back to haunt Matos twice more. But first, there was Cordero’s second Derby win to savor on Bold Forbes, the scorched-earth-style front-runner — a sprinter who was trained to go long, said Cordero — who enjoyed a near unblemished 2-year-old career at home in Puerto Rico.
At three, under Laz Barrera’s careful eye, Bold Forbes led start to finish at Churchill Downs. But it was his subsequent victory in the Belmont Stakes, where “Cordero carried him right to the wire”, that Matos remembers most vividly. “He was a hero that day.”
When Matos and Cordero parted ways, the agent returned to Puerto Rico for a sabbatical, to recharge the batteries. He bought a farm. “And, to tell you the truth, I went to the beach every day and was teaching water skiing lessons down at the beach in San Juan, with my boat I brought to Puerto Rico.”
San Juan’s sleepy harbor eventually lost its luster, and so Matos headed once more West, this time to Southern California, as agent to Laffit Pincay Jr., and another long, successful partnership, about 11 years this time.
“He won pretty easy that day,” said Pincay about Swale, his sole Derby winner, and arguably the biggest win during his partnership with Matos. “I got lucky. On that first turn I was able not to lose so much ground. From then on, I was stalking Althea, the favorite, but at the ⅜th pole, she stopped, and my horse took the lead very easily, and at the top of the stretch I knew he would be hard to beat.”
Add to that Derby victory Pincay’s biggest win in the Breeders’ Cup, when he rode Skywalker to victory in the 1986 Classic. “The race was tough,” Pincay said, about a field that included the giant-like shadows cast by Precisionist and Turkoman.
“My horse was like 10/1, but he ran big. The trainer [Michael Whittingham], he said, ‘if this horse wants to take the lead, just go with it.’ I thought I’d gone to the lead too early, but he lasted, and the other horse [Turkoman] came too late.”
During the decades that followed, Matos showed a hoarder’s affinity for big pay days - Derbys, too. With Kent Desormeaux, he secured the race on Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, and Real Quiet in 1998. In between, Victor Espinoza skipped clear of the field on War Emblem in 2002.
“I’ve lost the Triple Crown twice,” he said referring to War Emblem and Real Quiet, both of them Belmont Stakes losers with the Triple Crown within reach. “So, yeah, it would be nice to be able to do something about that.”
‘He really pushed me’
One Derby win you could dismiss as a stroke of luck. Two wins? A coincidence, perhaps. But six? A record like that can hardly be dismissed as an aberration or a fluke. It’s no surprise, then, that those who have worked with Matos describe a man who sweats the details.
“One of the things I noticed about him, he pays attention a lot to the bloodlines,” said Pincay. “He studies the charts. He’s got his own way of working, and it works good. He’s a good handicapper. He gets along with trainers, which is very important. He works hard. Very hard.”
And he expects that hard graft to be reciprocated. With tongue partially in cheek, Cordero told the story of the time he got in trouble riding at Hialeah. When he told his agent of his ten-day ban, “Tony kicked the tree and broke his foot.”
“He really pushed me,” Cordero added. “He pushed me to a point where I rode when I was hurt, with broken ribs, broken fingers. I tore the ligament on my right hand one time, rode with a cast,” said Cordero. And yet, Cordero doesn’t regret pushing his body this way.
“I’m glad, because we won a lot of races together, and we rode for a lot of big stables,” he said.
‘I didn’t like the way I was getting up in the morning’
Few sports place a greater psychological toll on their athletes than horseracing, and Matos has had a ringside seat for years on the way it affects those plying their trade in the game’s highest-stakes crucible.
For a while, Matos counted Garrett Gomez on his books. “Probably one of the nicest people I worked for in my life,” he said of the jockey, who died of an overdose in December of 2016.
“Very giving person - helped a lot of people outside the racetrack, you’d never even hear of it. Every time you won a race with Garrett, he always made sure people were taken care of. Garrett was a super human being,” Matos said.
Given the toll this sport can take, I asked Matos whether he sees his role as agent as that also of a personal caretaker. “I do my own thing, they do their own thing,” he replied. “I never interfere with their private lives. Every one of them have had different personalities, but I’ve been blessed.”
Yes, Gomez “had his issues”, he added. “Just like I did. I’ve had my ups and downs.” By that, Matos means his own problems with alcohol. “Actually, drinking was taking too much of my time. And, sometimes I didn’t like the way I was getting up in the morning.”
He’s eager to talk about his addiction, if only to help erase the stigma around it. “I decided to do something about it. Went to a couple AA meetings. Got myself sorted out.” Twenty-six years later, he still hasn’t had a drink.
‘Whatever music they play, I dance to it’
That Matos has managed his sobriety for so long speaks volumes - as does the way he reacted when diagnosed with prostate cancer six years ago. “I said to myself, ‘you’re going to beat it, and that’s it.’”
Radiation therapy lasted 45 consecutive days, and, throughout the treatment, “I worked every day, got up early, took care of my business,” Matos said. “When you have a setback like that, your mind works wonders.”
Cancer-free for well over five years, his mind now is focused on his latest Puerto Rican project. Jean Diaz is currently a guest at the Matos’s Pasadena household. This’ll be home from home for the teenager, at least for the time being, as he launches his Southern California career in a jockey colony front-loaded with talent.
“He’s a very good finisher. Very patient. Just watch him change sticks,” said Matos, playing a video on his iPad from Diaz’s first day at work at Camarero. From just four rides that day, Diaz returned home to supper a win and three place finishes richer. Matos is optimistic of Diaz’s chances in California – not that optimism is an especially rare quality in the man.
“Lots of people are negative - I’m positive,” said Matos, when I commented on his glass-half-full philosophy. “Whatever music they play, I dance to it. I love being in the game - I love what I do. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and come to the track. I wish I could live it all over again.”