The One That Got Away

It has been said that I have a good eye for a horse. Certainly I have bought a great many. Some were good and many were not. Admittedly, when I have picked out and bought a good horse (like Palace Malice for instance), I can get a little high on myself. But, I have a framed copy of a certain sales catalog page hung prominently in my office, and a glance at this will quickly bring me down to earth.

We have to go back to 1969. I was at the Keeneland Fall Sale where I intended to buy a few yearlings. Armed with my marked catalog, I was going through the barn area, and I stopped at Barn 21, where I asked to see hip number 128. This big, bay colt was brought out, and he had great charisma. But when I asked the showman to walk the horse straight toward me, it was quite clear that he had a very crooked right front ankle, very obvious as he winged it out to the side. I told the boy to put him up. He was clearly damaged goods, and I did not want to waste valuable time.

I remember quite well when he sold that night. I was seated on the front row in the pavilion, and when the big doors opened and he was walked in, you could easily see him throwing that right leg out to the side as he approached. The auctioneer knocked him down for $1,200, which is “peanuts” for a racehorse. But this colt was never going to stand training. I pitied the obviously green buyer who would pour thousands into this horse—all for naught. I congratulated myself on my good eye, enabling to avoid such disasters.

I thought no more about him.

Then, in 1971, during a period when I covered the Triple Crown races for a chain of Southern newspapers, I was in Louisville for the running of the 97th Kentucky Derby. It was a tremendous field that year--20 horses. When the horses broke and came through the stretch the first time, it looked like “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Bold and Able and the Calumet speedster, Eastern Fleet, were showing the way early on. Deep into the backstretch those two were still zinging along, but salty horses like Bold Reason, Jim French and Unconscious were right there in contention. The field must have been strung out for a sixteenth; the stretch runners biding their time. The real race had not yet begun. Now into the turn, here came Jim French looking for running room on the rail. The front runners were beginning to shorten stride, and the stretch runners were launching their bids. In the very back of the pack there was a big horse that was passing horses like they were tied to a tree! I did not know the horse-- or the colors-- but he was going to have something to say about the finish of the Kentucky Derby!

In mid-stretch Jim French gained the lead on the rail, Unconscious was making a furious bid right behind him, with Eastern Fleet trying to hang on. But on the outside that big, bay stretch runner was coming hard. The rider had wheeled him out from the rail looking for daylight, and he was asking the question…and getting the answer! That horse was sweeping through the Churchill Downs stretch like a tidal wave. But whose colors were those? Who was that horse?

He hit the front at the sixteenth pole and began to draw off.

Suddenly, as the field came toward us, I noticed a funny thing. He was flinging that right leg out to the side in a curious way. You guessed it. I later confirmed what I suspected. That was the yearling colt I had smugly rejected two years earlier. He won the Kentucky Derby in 1971, went on to win the Preakness, in track record time, and was later sold to King Ranch for a lot of money.

As I type this, I look up on the wall in my office at the framed, yellowed catalog page for the *Pretendre- Dixieland II colt, on which I have noted, “Right front crooked!”

I am the genius who turned down Canonero II for $1,200.

Canonero II preps for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Photo: Blood-Horse Library

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