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.
 

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