"Nights, Harry would sit with Cordero in the trophy room, watching films of races, talking riding, talking horses, talking horse people, talking Anglos. Harry would listen as the old jock instructed him, encouraged him, corrected him, bringing him along, shaping a future for him. After a while, Cordero even got [his son] Tommy to take the boy's book—to be his agent. Someday, Cordero thought, Harry could be a real race rider. Harry was already a rider, but someday he could be a race rider, like Cordero, the best of that breed."
In spite of Angel Cordero Jr.’s tutoring, 43-year-old Harry Vega never quite reached that highest echelon, although he’s been among the leaders at mid-level tracks like Philadelphia and Delaware, and currently at Presque Isle where, in 34 mounts over the past three weeks, he’s won nine races, with seven seconds and nine thirds. He’s also closing in on 4,000 career victories.
Although top graded stakes horses in general eluded him, Vega will always be associated with future Hall of Fame filly Xtra Heat with whom he won seven of 11 races. Four times under Vega’s guidance the great sprinter took on the boys, finishing third in both the G1 DeFrancis Memorial Dash and G1 Dubai Golden Shaheen, and winning the G3 Phoenix Breeders Cup at Keeneland before a disappointing sixth place finish in her second G1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
Vega currently rides trainer Valora Testerman’s promising three-year-old gelding Yano, a son of Yonaguska out of the Foolish Pleasure mare Sabreen. After a nice third place behind Capt. Candyman Can and Taqarub in the G3 Bay Shore, Yano and Vega finished off the board in the G3 Hirsch Jacobs on Preakness Day. The day before, Vega piloted Blue Sailor to a surprising second-place finish behind Mr. Nightlinger in the Jim McKay Turf Sprint, and Fancy Diamond to a runner-up position to All Giving in the Skipat Stakes.
He also once rode stakes winner (and Pha phenom) Double Down Vinman who’s now winning in New York—albeit after briefly down in the claiming ranks. What a gallant horse! His dam Christmas Strike is a half-sister to Christmas Kid whose victories included the G1 Ashland—with Rene Douglas up. One of four G1 winners for Lemon Drop Kid—all daughters—Christmas Kid is now retired, I believe, although I haven’t heard to whom she was bred. Charitable Man, another Lemon Drop Kid offspring, will apparently attempt to replicate his sire’s achievement of winning the G1 Belmont and become his fifth G1 winner—unless Lemon Chiffon beats him to it, by taking this Saturday’s G1 Gamely with Mike Smith up. Interestingly, in 2007, it was another Lemon Drop Kid—Citronnade—who won the Gamely. Tragically this year, Citronnade delivered a stillborn Ghostzapper foal on March 1, and then had to be euthanized following colic surgery on April 1—and this entire story was not announced by BloodHorse.com until more than a month later. Heartbreaking, as Citronnade was one of my favorites.
Back to the earlier quote about Harry Vega...the Frank Deford Sports Illustrated article (April 23, 1984) it’s from makes for interesting reading, especially for those younger fans who never experienced Cordero’s “force of personality” while riding. I admit I wasn’t a fan of his, although I respected his success. As for whether or not he cost Spectacular Bid the Triple Crown by physically and mentally intimidating young Ronnie Franklin on and off the track, I don’t know—that’s not a story I had heard before so for those with clearer knowledge feel free to comment. I did find the story set within the story—of young Harry Vega’s brief flirtation with possible paralysis—compelling and revealing about a hard-working jockey I have admired, Vega himself. Here’s hoping that 4,000 wins goal is safely met soon—and with a few more stakes winners tossed in for good measure.