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Canonero II: He Came from Caracas

Canonero II before the 1971 Belmont Stakes. (LIFE Archive)

Forget the movies. This ain’t little Margaret O’Brien in the paddock pleading “Golly, gee, gramps you got to win this race or they’ll foreclose on the farm.” And this ain’t Elizabeth Taylor, stealing the Grand National aboard National Velvet long before she even knew Richard Burton existed.

This is the Kentucky Derby, where God may not always be on the side of the richest owners, the most prestigious trainers or the highest-priced horseflesh, but most of the time that sure as hell is the smart way to bet.

Yet every once in a while — every once in a Kentucky Derby blue moon — without warning, without fanfare and without logic there comes a moment in this race when a legend is born; the kind of moment that touches the heart and soul of every backstretch rambler, every two-buck gambler and every “stooper” who sorts through mounds of discarded mutuel tickets in search of the one uncashed nugget that becomes tomorrow’s stake.

This Saturday, we will honor the 40th anniversary of a moment so rare, so bizarre you couldn’t make it up if you tried.

That was the day in 1971 an obscure racing reject came thundering from the back of the pack and took this hallowed race, its traditions, its reluctant power structure and some of its Old South mores apart.

His name was Canonero II, and at birth he was a better bet to fertilize the roses then to wear them as a Churchill Downs victory blanket.

Born with a severely crooked leg, he was purchased at the bargain-basement end of the Keeneland November sales for $1,200 by a bottom-feeding Venezuelan bloodstock agent named Luis Navas, who in turn packaged him with another colt and a filly and sold him to a countryman named Pedro Baptista for $6,000.

Baptista, a one-time millionaire reeling in bankruptcy, registered Canonero II under the name of his son-in-law, Edgar Caibett, in order to keep feeding his horse habit and have someone serve as his front.

In the inner city slums of Caracas, Baptista found a moderately successful black trainer named Juan Arias to take control of his new horse. There was no omen here about Derby success; a black trainer hadn’t saddled a Derby runner since 1944. The team was then joined by Gustavo Avila, a jockey who reportedly had great difficulty at the Venezuela national jockey school because he kept falling off horses. Which was before he became national riding champion.

When Arias checked out the scorecard on his colt’s physical problems, he discovered a split hoof, assorted stomach ailments and the crooked right foreleg that gave him a kind of crab-like stride. The trainer worked with Canonero II, and coaxed him to win his first start against an undistinguished field.

That fall, they brought Canonero II north and entered the 2-year-old in the Del Mar Futurity. He ran fifth. Baptista told Arias to sell him, but nobody on the Canonero II team spoke English. When veteran trainer Charles Whittingham tried to buy him they didn’t know what the hell he was saying.

Arias was a sensitive man. He wrote poetry and he trained horses and who is to say which genre tested a man’s faith more? He couldn’t win in California. He couldn’t sell the horse. He lay awake on his hotel bed. He moped. He went into a depression. And then he jumped to his feet and yelled to nobody in particular:

“Enough. We go home!”

The horse won six of nine in Caracas and then one day, without any warning, Baptista told his trainer, “Prepare yourself. You are going to the Kentucky Derby.”

The two had never spoken before of going to Kentucky, and, frankly, Arias was shocked and amazed.

End of story?

Well, hardly. As the late singer Al Jolson used to tell his audiences, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

The flight out of Caracas was a nightmare. Mechanical problems sent the plane back home shortly after takeoff. On the second try, before they reached the point of no return, there was a bright orange light in the sky. Even the horse must have realized it wasn’t a fireworks display from the Canonero II welcoming committee.

One of the engines was on fire. Look out, Caracas, the Baptista Varsity just made a U-turn and is headed your way again.

For the third attempt, they changed planes. When they finally landed in Miami, the governmental equine reception team discovered they did not have the proper papers. For more than 10 hours Canonero II remained inside the plane on the blazingly hot tarmac.

Then they stuck him in quarantine, and by the time he cleared that, four days later, he had lost 70 pounds.

Short of money, the beleaguered gang could not get a charter flight. They stuck Canonero II on a truck and vanned him to Louisville. The hard part was over — for the horse. For Arias and the groom, Juan Quintero, it was just beginning.

The Agua Calienete Derby Future Book had made Canonero II a 500-1 shot. The Daily Racing Form barely knew who he was. And the all-star cast of Derby trainers on the grounds acted as though Arias and his horse were a joke.

They laughed at the way the Canonero II only galloped and worked but once, in a time that was hardly impressive. They laughed at the way the trainer spent hours talking to his horse, stroking him, insisting the horse was conversing back.

They laughed at the way Arias was so low on cash that he bargained with the feed man. They laughed at the horse that had lost so much weight he looked like he should be looking for a vegetable wagon to pull.

The trainer, though, kept his anger within himself. He had a secret. He knew something hardly anyone else had bothered to find out. The Derby is a mile and quarter, but everyone knows that. Unlike every other horse in the race, however, Canonero II had run that distance several times in Venezuela.

Hardly anybody knew that.

The track handicapper thought so little of Canonero II’s chances that in rating the 20 horses entered, he lumped him into a pool with five other colts known as “the field.” Bet one, you get them all, but what railbird who had studied past performances really wanted them?

They were almost right. As we would learn after they finally ran the 1971 Kentucky Derby, five of those six were the last five to finish.

Derby Day had begun innocently enough. Three bands played. The water fountain in the middle spurted. The drunks passed out, and before you even knew “Weep No More My Lady'” time was upon us.

It was then, during the post parade, that a number of people finally noticed Canonero II. They couldn’t miss him. He was industriously trying to eat his lead pony. With some effort, Avila finally quieted him down.

As Derbies go, this one was run with far less contact. The Calumet entry of Bold And Able and Eastern Fleet appeared to be riding easily in contention while at the half-mile a creature named Saigon Warrior at the other end seemed in danger of being lapped by the field. Canonero II tread water in 18th place.

Avila rode this thing the only way he could, which is to say long and hard and as though his intention was to brush past downtown Cincinnati by going outside and then try to join the rest of the field which was headed for the finish. Canonero II was running twice as far as anyone else in the race.

Early down the stretch, he was actually running seven horses wide but suddenly there he was, on the lead and flying. As happens at this point in the Derby a number of horses seemed to be moving backward while their tongues were hanging sideways.

Avila did not have to go to the whip. He handrode this unexpected hero the rest of the way, his lead widening to 3 3/4 lengths over the Santa Anita Derby winner, Jim French.

La Carrera Grande (the Great Race), as Arias and Avila called it, was theirs. Canonero II’s name had been called just twice by the track announcer by the time he took over at the eighth pole. It remains the longest route ever taken by a Kentucky Derby winner.

The Mystery Horse had been crowned.

“Do you know anything at all about this horse that beat you today?” Angel Cordero, who had been up on Jim French, was asked.

Angel paused for an instant, wiped the dirt off his face and then said, “I know he win the Kentucky Derby.”

It was that simple. And that amazing.

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1 Comment

There is nothing like a good race horse story with characters you couldn’t make up! I believe it is one of the reasons the sport is so much fun. You have to be a little deranged (at least by most people’s standards)to go into the horse business in the first place.

Posted by Lois on May 4, 2011 @ 2:13 am

Author PhotoWorking from Churchill Downs undercover, Blinkers Off is a legendary, award-winning sports writer spinning tall tales from Derbies past. More by  ›