Viva Canonero! Part 1

The 1971 3-year-old crop trilogy concludes appropriately with the remarkable Canonero II, whose story is so improbable it would be scoffed at by any responsible movie producer. Because of that, it must be told in two parts. The second part will follow on Monday.

The story begins at the 1967 Keeneland November breeding stock sale, where horsemen gathered every year looking for bargain-basement bloodstock. One of the broodmares selling was a 6-year-old daughter of Nantallah named Dixieland II, in foal to the young English-bred stallion Pretendre, runner-up in the previous year’s Epsom Derby. The pedigree had little interest to American breeders and she was bought back by her breeder, Edward B. Benjamin, for $2,700.

The following spring, on April 24, Dixieland II, who was being boarded at Claiborne Farm, gave birth to a bay colt. Benjamin tried to sell the colt the following year at the Keeneland July yearling sale, but the youngster was rejected because of a crooked right foreleg. He was so awkward and ungainly he was described as having a “stride like a crab.”

Benjamin then consigned him to the Keeneland September yearling sale, which at that time was a low-level auction and not in the same league with the July sale. Hardly anyone had a horse rejected from this sale. But selling on the last day, there was a good chance that no one would want a crooked-legged colt by an unfashionable European stallion, who was out of a mare that couldn’t even bring more that $2,700.

But in stepped bloodstock agent Luis Navas, who had a reputation as an equine junk dealer. He would pay dirt-cheap prices for horses and then put together package deals and sell them to Venezuelan owners who were looking for low-priced American-breds. Navas, acting under the name Albert, agent, opened the bidding on the Pretendre colt at $1,200 and that was it; there wasn’t another bid. He packaged him up with a Ballymoss colt and a filly and sold them to Venezuelan businessman Pedro Baptista.

Baptista’s plumbing and pipe manufacturing company was in dire financial straits and was on the verge of bankruptcy. In order to continue purchasing horses, he registered them under the name of his son-in-law, Edgar Caibett. After getting his three new yearlings from Navas, Baptista turned them over to a young up-and-coming trainer named Juan Arias, who grew up in the slums of Caracas and was abandoned by his father. He eventually escaped into the world of horses and would sneak into the track and muck out stalls for free.

At age 16, he enrolled in trainer’s school, after which he got his first full-time job at the racetrack. But with little pay and nowhere to live, he slept in the stalls. He then put together a small string of horses and several years later was introduced to Baptista.

When Canonero, whom Baptista had named after a type of singing group, arrived at Arias’ barn, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. Not only was the colt’s cooked leg still noticeable, but he had a split right hoof and a bad case of worms. Arias had to clean out the colt’s stomach every 30 days and put him on a special diet, which included seaweed from Australia.

After Canonero won his career debut by 6 1/2 lengths at La Rinconada, Baptista had Arias ship him to Del Mar, where he hoped he’d run well enough to be sold. After finishing third in an allowance race, Canonero ran fifth in the Del Mar Futurity. One trainer who thought he had potential was Charlie Whittingham. When Whittingham found out the colt could be bought for $70,000 he attempted to buy him for one of his main clients, Mary Jones. Unfortunately, no one with the horse could speak English, the first of many blunders by Baptista. Unable to get a firm price, Whittingham gave up, and Canonero returned to Venezuela.

Canonero went on to win six of his next nine races, including a victory at 1 1/4 miles in early March. He also had sprinting speed, winning at 6 1/2 furlongs three weeks later, his third start in three weeks. After finishing third in a 1 1/8-mile handicap on April 10, Baptista unleashed a bombshell on Arias, informing him that Canonero was being shipped to America to run in the Kentucky Derby…in three weeks.

It was remarkable that Canonero was even nominated to the Derby. That February, Baptista had been in Florida and heard that Pimlico vice-president Chick Lang was in town taking nominations for the Preakness. Back then you had to nominate for all three Triple Crown races separately. Baptista was told to contact Lang and ask him if he’d take Canonero’s nomination for the Preakness and also put in his nomination for the Derby and Belmont.

Baptista called Lang at the Miami Springs Villas near Hialeah, but Lang had no clue who Canonero was, nor who this guy on the phone with the Spanish accent claiming he was the horse’s owner was. At first, he thought it was John Finney and Larry Ensor of Fasig-Tipton playing a joke on him. When Lang told Baptista he never heard of the horse, Baptista replied, “You will.”

Lang wrote the name down on the back of cocktail napkin and told Baptista he’d take care of all three nominations. But when Finney checked on the horse and told Lang he couldn’t find any record of him and that someone was pulling his leg, Lang crumpled up the napkin and started to throw it in the trash, but decided he’d hold on to it just in case it was legitimate. A call to the racing secretary’s office the following day revealed that there indeed was a horse named Canonero, and Lang submitted all three nominations.

As the Derby drew near, Baptista had a dream in which his deceased mother told him Canonero was going to win the Kentucky Derby. That solidified his decision to run.

So, one week after his third-place finish at La Rinconada, Canonero boarded a plane for Miami with his groom Juan Quintero, whose expenses came out of Arias’ pocket. Shortly after taking off, the plane was forced to return due to mechanical failure. The second attempt wasn’t any more successful, as one of the engines caught on fire and the plane was forced to return once again. The only other plane they could find was a cargo plane filled with chickens and ducks, which became Canonero’s travel companions.

Finally, a weary Canonero arrived in Miami. But airport officials discovered the horse had no papers or blood work, so he was forced to remain on the plane for 12 hours in the sweltering heat, nearly becoming dehydrated. Someone close to Baptista said that the colt actually was flown to Panama to wait until the papers were in order. In any event, Canonero finally was allowed off the plane, but his troubles were far from over. With no blood test results, he was placed in quarantine at the airport for four days while the blood work was sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Beltsville, Md.

By the time he was released from quarantine, Canonero had lost 70 pounds and was a physical mess. But there were more problems. Baptista had not sent enough money to pay for a flight from Miami to Louisville, so Canonero had to be vanned the 900 miles, a trip that took some 20 hours. Then came the final indignity. Neither Arias nor Quintero could speak English, and when the van arrived at the Churchill Downs stable gate, no one at the track had any idea who the horse or the trainer was and refused them entrance into the track until the matter was resolved. Finally, the journey was over as Canonero was bedded down at Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Derby was one week away.

When Canonero’s name entered the Derby picture, the Caliente Future Book (the only one back then) quoted him at odds of 500-1.

Canonero’s week at Churchill was a freak show, as word got out about this skinny Venezuelan colt with the crazy bangs that resembled Moe of the Three Stooges. You could count every one of Canonero’s ribs. When Arias inquired how much a sack of bran cost, he was told $45. “Too much,” he said. “Can we have half a sack?”

Arias became almost as much of a curiosity as his horse. Here was a black man from Venezuela who spoke no English, was rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth, wore a sport jacket and tie to the barn each morning, and had conversations with Canonero. He would relay to the media through an interpreter all the things Canonero said to him during their conversations.

All the while, Arias was telling anyone who would listen that Canonero was a horse of destiny and was going to win the Kentucky Derby. He only trained him when Canonero felt like training, and when he did feel like it he’d gallop without a saddle. Not able to speak English, Arias, when asked what Canonero would do on a particular morning, went into a pantomime of a horse galloping. The two had almost a spiritual relationship. If Canonero didn’t eat, Arias would go into his stall and pet him and talk to him, and he would start eating. If he felt Canonero had something say to him, he’d press his ear against the horse and listen. He’d always ask Canonero how he was feeling and how he slept before sending him to the track. If the horse told him he didn’t feel like training that day, Arias would say to him. “OK, I’m not going to force you. Just relax, go eat, and we’ll wait for tomorrow.” Quintero wasn’t much different, saying he treated like Canonero as if “I was raising my own son.”

The “Canonero Follies” became a running joke, especially when the horse finally did work and went a half-mile in a lethargic :53 4/5. But the horse was thriving physically and had put back 50 of the 70 pounds he had lost. In defending his training methods, Arias said, “Most American trainers train for speed. I train Canonero to be a star; a horse of depth who can be ridden in front or from behind. They say I work my horse too slow. Let’s see if he runs that slow on Saturday.”

Arias was upset over some of the things that were said and written about Canonero. “They say we are clowns and that we are crazy,” he said. “Someone wrote he crawls like a turtle.”

Arias had one more trick up his sleeve. On Derby morning, he worked Canonero under the cover of darkness and the colt went three furlongs in a razor-sharp :35 flat, a workout that was not revealed until two years later.

Baptista did not attend the Derby, choosing to remain home to take care of business, and instead sent his son to represent him.

Arias accompanied Canonero to the paddock, but was too nervous to saddle him and left that task to trainer Jose Rodriguez, who had served as his interpreter. Instead of going up to the boxes, a visibly nervous Arias watched the race from the rail, along with the grooms. Canonero was easy to spot with his brown silks and brown cap.

In quickly describing the race, Canonero, placed in the mutual field, dropped back to 18th in the 20-horse field under leading Venezuelan rider Gustavo Avila, some 20 lengths off the pace. Around the far turn, fans watching live and on TV saw this brown blur streaking past horses as if moving in a different time frame than the others. The response was the same everywhere: “Who is that?” Even as the mysterious figure came hurtling out of the turn, engulfing the two Calumet Farm horses on the lead, Eastern Fleet and Bold and Able, no one had a clue who it was except Arias and his Venezuelan entourage, who were already jumping up and down and shouting, “Canonero! Canonero!”

Canonero charged by the two Calumet horses and quickly drew clear, with Avila just hand-riding him. He continued to draw away on his wrong lead before the stunned crowd, many of whom still did not know who this horse was. He crossed the finish line 3 3/4 lengths ahead of Jim French.

Up in the press box, even the majority of reporters had no idea who had won. When Chick Lang heard the name of the winner, it didn’t ring a bell. After the horses had pulled up and the winner came jogging back, it finally hit him “like a bolt of lightning.”

The horse whose name he had scribbled down on the back of a cocktail napkin and almost tossed in the garbage had just won the Kentucky Derby. “Jesus Christ!” he shouted. “It’s the mystery horse. I can’t believe it. This is like a fairy tale.”

The reporters couldn’t believe it either. It was the horse they had been mocking for the past week. Quasimodo had turned into Prince Charming right before their eyes.

Arias burst into tears and dashed onto the track where he hugged Quintero and just about everyone else who spoke Spanish. But the indignities still were not over. When he tried to go into the winner’s circle, the security guards would not let him in. Fortunately, one of his fellow countrymen who spoke English explained who he was.

Meanwhile, back in Venezuela, Baptista had no idea what had happened, and when a friend called him right after the race shouting that he had won he thought it was a joke and hung up. But his friend called back and swore he was telling the truth. When the phone began ringing off the hook, Baptista finally realized it was true and, like Arias, he broke into tears. He and his father then drove to the cemetery, where they prayed over the grave of Baptista’s mother, who had paid him that fateful visit in his dreams.

Baptista threw a party that night that lasted until Tuesday when Avila returned. By then Caracas was in full celebration, with people singing and dancing throughout the city. When Avila returned, he was carried through the streets of Caracas. He also received a telegram from the president of Venezuela, which read in part: “This great victory will stimulate Venezuela’s progress in all its efforts…”

For Arias, there wasn’t much time for celebration. He and Quintero had to pack and head to Baltimore for the Preakness. It was time to start thinking about the Triple Crown. What followed were more follies and more adventures. The story of Canonero was far from over.


Leave a Comment:




side BY side.

19 Nov 2008 9:51 PM

One of the most amazing stories ever told!  Canonero II captured the imagination of the entire racing world and gave hope to breeders and owners everywhere.  It's difficult to remember how bizarre and magical that moment was, but you have done your usual excellent job in retelling this tale.  You really couldn't make this up!

19 Nov 2008 10:11 PM
John T.

Great story Steve,at the time I took a lot of interest in

Canonero 11 because of his sire Pretendre.In the 1966 Epsom

Derby he was ridden by a young English jockey called Paul Cook and the winner Charlottown by one of the greatest Austrilian jockeys Scobie Breasley.Pretendre should have won it but inside the last furlong it was a case of the wily old veteran against a young excitable kid in such an important race.

19 Nov 2008 10:35 PM
Geno Castillo

Sometimes heart and class overcome all the obstacles and barriers we place in front of them.  Cannonero ran in spite of us, not because of us.  

19 Nov 2008 11:20 PM
Dr. Robert Fishman

Great story, Steve. It was good to revisit those times...To this day it was the most improbable victory I've ever witnessed.

19 Nov 2008 11:28 PM

I was there that day, attending my second Ky. Derby in the infamous infield at the tender age of 15.  That was way before the days of the Jumbotron, so those of us in the infield only saw a brief glimpse of the horses as they sped by.  Due to the noise and the poor PA system, word of mouth as it spread throughout the crowd was the only way to find out who had won the race.  I remember hearing the name "Canonero" and saying "WHO?!" as I thumbed through my program looking to see if such a name appeared in the race.

19 Nov 2008 11:56 PM

I was still in high school in 1971, and pretty new to racing, and Canonero winning the Derby as an unknown was so exciting to me!  And I was so disappointed when he lost the Belmont.  I was just sure he was going to win!

I went to YouTube earlier this evening and watched all three 1971 Triple Crown races - I don't think I've seen any of them since they were originally run!  What great memories.

I was ruminating the other day on the fact that I came into racing at a pretty amazing time.  I started off with the only Derby winner in history to be disqualified (Dancer's Image in 1968).  Five years later, I saw a Triple Crown winner.  A few years later, a filly won the Derby.  Just think, if I'd been born early enough to become a racing fan in, say, 1949, I'd have waited decades for all those things!

Amazing times, and a fabulous trip down memory lane.  Thanks, Steve!

20 Nov 2008 12:33 AM
Matthew W

Steve thanks for resurecting this unsung crop! I was a big Unconscious fan and was not a little peaved when Jim French came out here and took Tha SA Derby--Johnny Campo was blunt as heck when he declared The West Coast horses as weak--but he backed it up with a win with "Frenchy"...Canonero WAS unknown---but he also was the best of his crop and proved it in the Preakness...I remember the Sports Illustrated cover headline "Canonero Shouldn't Have Run" his Belmont fade....but I saw him at SA the next year, working out---he was a looker! And I believe he won a GR 1 race that Spring in NY...But yeah, he blew them away in The 71 Derby! Everybody thought it was a freak upset---But he gave Venezuelan fans another thrill, didn't he?!

20 Nov 2008 1:47 AM
The Deacon

Absolutely one of the most impressive Derby wins ever. That race made me believe in the underdog again. South America has produced some brilliant horses in my lifetime. Forli, the sire of Forego and Candy Ride to name a couple come to mind. Great blog Steve as always................  

20 Nov 2008 2:36 AM

Steve, Canonero's story is absolutely one of the most moving stories in horse racing, I am SO happy you are sharing it.

PS Happy Thanksgiving to you and your wife.

20 Nov 2008 7:09 AM

I remember the insults and write-ups...I see a man who knew the horse had been through hell to get to Kentucky and just "loved" him back to health.

I so remember that stretch run, I was rooting for Jim French...

20 Nov 2008 7:21 AM

WOW  -  What a great story. I had never heard of him, but I know now I will never forget his name.

I always enjoy reading everything

that you write.

Thanks  -

20 Nov 2008 7:24 AM

Steve, I've heard you tell parts of this story on At The Races with Steve Byk, but it's great fun to read the full account again here.  It's stories like this that keep all of us 'little guys' plugging along, buying cheap horses when we can and dreaming about catching the 'big one'.  Too bad Hollywood never got around to putting this story on the big screen.

20 Nov 2008 8:01 AM
Ramon Brito

As a Venezuelan it feels good to once again read about our Cinderella horse. 37 years later we cherish Canonero, the "Monster" Gustavo Avila, still active trainer Juan Arias, the late Pedro Baptista, groom Juan Quintero and everyone involved in the biggest upset in Derby History.

I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Cot Campbell about Canonero when he was the guest in the Talking Horses forum. His story about him almost having a Derby winner and rejecting him because of his crooked leg is simply amazing... Thanks, Steve, for giving us this moment of joy with your story, and what can we say, Viva Canonero...!!!

20 Nov 2008 8:59 AM

Steve, I loved this story and really can't believe it hasn't been made into a feature film!  I wanted to see a picture of Canonero II, so I looked on the net and found a terrific web site with many good color photos of him winning the Derby.  Also available is a film of the race.  The site is

20 Nov 2008 9:23 AM
Ida Lee

It's great reading about Canonero II. As a Hispanic living in New York City at the time, I knew nothing about horse racing until Canonero II. Then I fell in love with this incredible creature who "ran funny" and gave us one of the most exciting times of our lives. I still think about him. Thanks for the memories.  

20 Nov 2008 9:49 AM
Steve Haskin

They took a lot of that from the chapter I wrote on Canonero in the Ten Greatest Derbys book and from several features I did, but there were some other great quotes that I've never seen before. I'll be using a lot of the quotes I have from the Preakness and Belmont in part 2, some of which they used on this site.

20 Nov 2008 10:02 AM
Jose Bermudez

I am also from Venezuela and was 21 by the time of that Ky Derby race. I remember I was relaxing, since it was Labor day in Venezuela, May 1st, when I heard the news and couldn`t believe it. Rest is history.

I read that the early future favourite for the race was Hoist the Flag but he was broken and retired before the Derby.

Steve, thanks for the story and am anxiously waiting for part II, even though I know it is going to include the sad defeat in the Belmont Stakes.

20 Nov 2008 10:03 AM
Alfred K

Another GREAT story Steve, I am really looking forward to part II.  At the beginning of this year, I was fascinated with Tomcito. But this story of Canonero II is just amazing.

20 Nov 2008 10:14 AM

You're killing me!  Making me wait til Monday for the next installment?  The way you write, it's like we are *there* with your vivid illustrations - thank you so much.  I enjoyed visiting the web link that was posted, but I know your words will be something I'll be looking forward to next week.

20 Nov 2008 11:09 AM

Steve, great job! This is why we all love horse racing and will till the day we die. My friend, who is the son of a trainer who passed away several years ago, groomed Canonero at Miami International Airport when he was in quarantine because he just happened to speak Spanish, which is not a shock since he grew up in Miami.

20 Nov 2008 12:37 PM

An how about that crafty veteran handicapper, columnist, chartcaller, bon vivant Nick Sanabria picking him in the Derby?

20 Nov 2008 1:32 PM
s lee

Ah, Canonero.  One of the great hunch bets of all time - a horse coming into the Derby who had already won at 1.25 miles, who had already beaten older horses, who had already carried 126 pounds, and who was coming down from altitude (Riconda) to essentially sea level.

All of these things and more were discovered by a father of a college friend who worked at Churchill Downs and spoke Spanish - he always said if anybody had bothered to get an interpreter and spread the word, the price of the field that day would have fallen like a stone.  I remember Jim McKay in the winner's circle that day - spoke no Spanish and just couldn't make it work!

Somebody told me once that Canonero's crooked leg played a role in saving Seattle Slew as a racehorse.  He had crooked legs and waddled (his nickname when young was "Baby Huey") and was sold for practically nothing, but there were people who said "remember Canonero's legs?  Maybe this dark bay has a future too - let him grow and we'll see."  Who knows?

20 Nov 2008 3:19 PM
Steve Haskin

Ida, I remember how the Puerto Rican community embraced him and came out to Belmont Stakes in droves. It seems he united all Hispanics, regardless of where they were from.

Ah, yes, Mac, good old Nick Sanabria, who claimed to have been an interpreter at Belmont. I have no reason to doubt him, but Nick occasionally stretched the truth a tad.

S Lee, I forgot about mentioning he beat older horses. Thanks for adding that. Interesting about Slew.

Rob - Boy, these blogs are getting to be six degrees of separation. It's amazing the connections that have been made here and on my other blogs.

Jose, thanks for writing. It's great to hear from someone from Venezuela. There will be a lot more on the effect he had on the country in part 2.

Speedball, someone actually did contact me years ago about a possible film, but obviously nothing ever came of it.

20 Nov 2008 3:31 PM

What a treat to see Canonero II's name again! He is the reason I became hooked on the Ky Derby for the last 35 yrs! His is a great story that should be told on-screen. Move over Seabiscuit!! Viva el Canonero II!

20 Nov 2008 4:23 PM

 As a Venezuelan old time racing fan, I can say without doubt that this is the fondest memory ever of thoroughbred racing in my country. I was a high school boy at that time and certainly will never forget Canonero's amazing feat in the States. Recently I was able to personally meet Mr. Juan Arias and really enjoyed talking about his Cinderella star. It was really sad that Canonero got beat in Belmont Park but perhaps the saddest thing right now is the near demise of the once splendid Venezuelan thoroughbed racing racing today  under Chavez's regime.    

Thanks Steve for the memories and long live our crab-footed Cinderella champion. A big hug for all from Caracas.  

20 Nov 2008 8:58 PM

I never knew this story, but I did KNOW this Horse.  What a great runner.

20 Nov 2008 9:27 PM

I just went and looked at the Kentucky Derby video.  That right front was crooked!!!  You can really see it in the head on shot as he crosses the line.  It sure didn't slow him down though.  What a great story, the stuff dreams are made of. . .

20 Nov 2008 11:59 PM

Great Story STEVE!, I'm From Venezuela and I'm 25 years old, so i wasn't born by the time Canonero won the Derby, but i've seen the videos plenty of times, and i've heard many stories from my dad, i can't wait to share this story with him too, he is such a fan of Canonero, it's like a fairy tale...

21 Nov 2008 12:21 AM

As a Venezuelan I feel very proud of Cañonero. Actually I'm 37 years old,  Cañonero won the Kentucky Derby on May 1st,1971 and I was born the day before!!,I mean on April 30rd, 1971 just 24 hour before Cañonero's win!!! I have always felt that as a magical coincidence in my life. Cañonero for us will be forever a fairy tale, a dream came true who always  we are going to keep in our hearts.  

Cañonero forever!!!

21 Nov 2008 1:30 AM

you never noe till you put THEM in the starting gate!!!...Long Live The King!!!

21 Nov 2008 1:37 AM
Steve Haskin

Thanks again to everyone from Venezuela for your comments. It's so great to hear that Canonero's memory still lives on.

21 Nov 2008 3:57 AM
Larry Ensor

I highly recommend buying Mr. Haskins, Ten Greatest Derbies.  An easy and good read.

I remember my father telling the story of what happened with Chick, John and he before the race went off.  So, you know who we were rooting for.  I believe the crowd at the 71 Belmont Stakes was one of the all time highest.  Maybe more the Secretariat's.  It truly would make a great movie.  If the industry could "think out of the box" we should put up the money to produce it.

In the late 80's I was buying horses for a great guy in Panama who's partner was the president.  I bought a 2 year old colt that had been RNA'd at a 2 year old sale.  He won 5 races in row down there and supposedly there was not a horse in the country that could get near him.  My client called me and asked me to nominate him to the Triple Crown.  I had to chuckle after hanging up the phone thinking of my fathers story who I called after nominating the horse.  Unfortunately for the horse, my clients and myself about a month or two later Noriega over threw the government and the President left the country.  But during that time I fielded calls from the press from all over the place.  It was a lot of fun and I could not help but think of the Canonero story.

21 Nov 2008 1:14 PM
Dr.Eduardo Machado

Dear Mr. Steve:

Thanks  in name of many Venezuelans for writting the Cañonero's story for  all the world, and again Cañonero still lives in thousands of Venezuelan hearts, before, now and forever...!!!!

21 Nov 2008 1:15 PM

As a newbee to horse racing and Bloodhorse I have come to enjoy your passionate writings about the industry.  I also feel the passion of your blog commenters which leads me to this:  Why don't you and the other blog writers put together a blogger convention somewhere in Kentucky in mid summer of 2009.  Travel day Thur. with a reception that night, seminars or horse visit Fri. AM, off to the track in the Aft. Same for Sat. Big party that night and Sun. for travel home.  What do you think?  

21 Nov 2008 1:23 PM
Steve Haskin

Larry, thank you for sharing that. That's a pretty wild story in itself.

And thank you, Dr. Machado. Horses like Canonero must be kept alive, and his story must be shared with those who were there and lived it and especially those who hadnt gotten into the sport yet.

Haker, that sounds like a fun idea. If the Blood-Horse is willing to undertake something like that I'm all for it.

21 Nov 2008 1:51 PM

A little off topic, but to set the record straight.  S Lee, Seattle Slew legs were for the most part perfectly acceptable. He sold at the Fasig Tipton KY yearling sale in 75 for I believe $17,500. Seems cheap today but remember this was 75.  That would be more like $100,000 in today's money.  The same could be said for Seabiscut when Hillenbrand said that he sold for the poultry some of $6,500.  This was the late 30's! The country was still in the depression. $6,500 for a horse especially with his record at the time was a fortune. I couldn't sell a horse with those PPs now for $6,500

21 Nov 2008 2:58 PM
marc W

I actually saw Canonero run in a sprint at Belmont-running second to a horse called Leemat I believe. I was on a high school trip to NYC from Canada and slipped away from from the group (we also saw Hair on Broadway which really dates me)

I worked every summer for Frank Merrill Jr-(which would also be a great racetrack  story to write about him along with Avelino Gomez that were colorful racing characters--hint hint) at Fort Erie racetrack. I was not about to miss a chance to go a major Mecca of racing I had only read about while in NYC. Forward Gal also raced that day who I invested my money on after getting a form. I even got two teachers to send money with me to bet on her--but that is off topic.

Young then but a veteran of 8 years around the track (my dad worked on the mutuals) after seeing Canonero win the Derby I let a friend pick 5 horses and I took Canonero to win the Preakness for $20 which was a lot of money for me at the time. Also dumb he paid $8 or $9 dollars if I recall. Instead of coming from the clouds like the Derby he went to the front and jogged. Things did not go as well in the Belmont but I do remember him well.

Thanks for the story---Gomez or Merrill-hint hint again-they would make good reading.

21 Nov 2008 5:14 PM
s lee

I guess Slew's legs looked good to some and not so good to others.  I knew I'd read this someplace as well as heard it, so if you look in "Thoroughbred Legends: Seattle Slew" by Dan Mearns, it talks about his legs and his selling price.  He did sell for $17,500 (I thought it was $17,000), while under orders to sell for at least $15,000.  Horsetrader is also right that the average sale price at F-T Lexington was lower than that, though the average price at F-T's Saratoga price was over $37,000 that year.  Mearns quotes Steve Cady of the NY Times, who in turn quotes Ted Bates of Fasig-Tipton about Slew: "nice hind leg but passes close at hocks....turns out moderately right front from knee down".  Apparently some felt it shouldn't interfere with pursuing a racing career and others saw it as "a serious conformational defect."  So, to each his own!  He might not have looked perfect, but the important thing was, he had the heart of a lion and could fly!

21 Nov 2008 6:37 PM
Steve Haskin

Most people dont realize that Frankie Dettori's signature flying leap was stolen from Angel Cordero who stole it from Avelino Gomez, the first rider to do the flying leap.

21 Nov 2008 6:47 PM


Love these stories!  Have you seen this series of Canonero photos on the new Google Life archive?

21 Nov 2008 8:52 PM





21 Nov 2008 9:25 PM
Matthew W

Steve my father took me to the races in the early 70's--Santa Anita to be exact, and I learned early on that you just could never know when to expect to see a great race--Canonero won The Derby, but it was his Preakness/near the pace/powering away--that cemented him as the real good horse he was...Your memory jars my own, and I remember the "Derby Fever" mumblings at Santa Anita in '72, over two Cal-Breds, one the smallish/head low MacAurthur Park--the other the huge brilliant Royal Owl.....I saw them both work between races on (I believe) The Sat before SA Derby...Mac Park went 1:35 2/5.....Royal Own went 1:34 3/5-----and Mac retired/Royal Owl bombed as the heavy fav in SA Derby...The only West Coast horse in Riva Ridge's Derby was the plodder Kentuckian.....but it was later that Summer, after he had finished a close 4th in Riva Ridge's Hol Derby---Quack ran one of the greatest two-turn 1 1/4's ever by a three year old(or by ANY horse for that matter!) in Hol Gold Cup.....You never know when you're going to see greatness---like Big Brown's Derby---You just know it when you see it!

22 Nov 2008 12:12 AM
John Manley

Re the comment about the late Jim McKay in the winner's circle (S Lee, Nov 20 at 3:19 pm)-- this needs checking.

I'm reasonably certain that CBS had the contract to telecast all the Triple Crown races in that era. Jim McKay, of course, was the face of ABC and would not have been working the Derby that year. Perhaps you're thinking of Jack Whitaker or Heywood Hale Broun, both of whom were regulars on races that CBS telecast in the early 1970s.

22 Nov 2008 12:33 AM

  Haker, what an excellent idea you have on a blogger get together in Kentucky. I wouldn't miss someting like that for the world. To be able to get to meet and talk to people who have a passion for the horses and racing would be fantastic. I vote yes.

22 Nov 2008 10:04 AM
Laura B

WOW!  Great story -- and great storyteller!

22 Nov 2008 10:17 AM
Steve Haskin

Matthew, I'll be going into the Preakness in great detail in part 2. I remember all those horses you mentioned very well. Dont forget Bicker and Finalista.

22 Nov 2008 10:17 AM
Matthew W

Yes! Bicker,the son of Round Table---Earl Scheib had to do a whole lot of $29.95 paint jobs for that guy! Bicker was somewhat of a bust on the track, although he did close fastest for 2nd in Riva's Hol Derby----But Finalista! I never thought I'd ever hear that name brought up! He was a favorite of mine, and practically everyone else as well! A leggy chestnut (?) who started out in Tijuana at Caliente, I believe---he went tooth and nail with Riva Ridge all the way in Hol Derby---he always gave his all! So many memories from those times...How 'bout when Shoe was taken off Cougar II by Mary Jones-Bradley/against Charlie's wishes....Shoe wins Hol Gold Cup on longshot Kennedy Road--beats Cougar AND Quack---then tells Gil Stratton in winners circle "I couldn't have won it without Mary"....

23 Nov 2008 4:44 PM
Matthew W

And Steve now that my memory's jarred---The Hollywood Gold Cup was (arguably) the "best" overall race of The Seventies...I saw many of them, including the Crystal Water/Cascapedia/Caucasus/Ancient Title '77 renewal and The Exceller/Text/Vigors/J O Tobin "Three Noses On The Wire" '78 running---both were nemed "Race Of The Year"....throw in Ack Ack's 134 lb running in '71, Quacks '72 Tour de Force (Harry Henson called him "Koooo--Whack!" at head of the stretch), The '73 "I couldn't have won it without Mary" running with Shoe nosing out Quack on Kennedy Road...not to mention Affirmed in '79....That was a glory decade for The Gold Cup, once a real marque race.....

23 Nov 2008 6:01 PM

As a 11 year-old I vividly remember following Canonero's run through the triple crown. I subscribed to Sports Illustrated at the time and remember the cover story after the Belmont, "Canonero should not have run." He had a rash and was not 100% for that final triple crown race.

26 Nov 2008 11:30 PM

I remember this race. I watched it at the track(forget which one)I liked CANONERO because he was the only horse in this race that ran a few 1 1/4 miles. I think he ran a couple at 1 1/2. And the weight, he did carry 126lbs. I told my buddy who I was with that CANONERO was going to win this race. He said, "nah". And he was good at handicapping. When the race was over, he couldn't believe CANONERO won. I told him, you read that paper, 'GOOD"! (THE RACING FORM)You gotta read it good. I was so happy to see him win !

22 Oct 2009 8:33 PM
roberto alvarado

it is possible ti find out the 1972 stymie handicanp where cañonero beats to riva ridga

24 Feb 2011 5:12 PM

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