Viva Canonero!

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Canonero II’s incredible Triple Crown odyssey; a story that still stands alone in the annals of the Turf. On this occasion, I am reprinting in its entirety, with some additions, the two-part story I wrote several years ago. Be forewarned, it is over 5,000 words. But the real story of Canonero cannot be told in anything less.

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 when the bidding stopped at $2,700, Claiborne Farm manager William Taylor, acting as agent for Dixieland II’s breeder Edward B. Benjamin, took it upon himself to buy the mare back.

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, one horseman described him 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 a far cry from the prestigious July sale. Hardly anyone had a horse rejected from this sale. By selling on the last day, however, 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.

One of those inspecting the yearlings was Cot Campbell, the founder of syndicate ownership. Campbell asked to see the Pretendre colt and thought he was a "big bay knockout." But then he noticed that the colt threw his right front leg out. Because of his crooked leg he had the groom take him back in his stall and went on his way, never giving the colt another thought.

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, whose bald head, scar on his nose, and missing teeth made him look older than his 44 years.

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. Rasied by his mother and grandmother, he eventually escaped into the world of horses and would sneak into the track and muck out stalls for free. To Arias, the beauty of the horses provided a stark contrast to the poverty in which he lived.

At age 16, he enrolled in trainer’s school at the old El Paraiso Racetrack, 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 eventually put together a small string of horses, and several years later was introduced to Baptista, who took a liking to the young trainer, giving him 16 horses to train..

One of them the was the crooked-legged son of Pretendre, whom Baptista  named Canonero, after a type of singing group. When he arrived at Arias’ barn, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. Not only was the colt’s cooked leg still noticeable, 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.

Baptista had been forced to sell 24 of his 48 horses to raise cash for his business and told Arias he had to get Canonero started quickly and have him ready to win first time out.

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.

After failing to sell the horse, an indignant Baptista told Arias, “Don’t worry; we will return next year and win the Kentucky Derby.” Arias paid little attention.

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 asked Baptista how to spell the horse’s name, telling him he never heard of the horse, Baptista replied, “You will.”

Lang wrote the name down on the back of a 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 better 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.

Arias firmly believed he had a spiritual relationship with horse. 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. They made us very angry.”

Arias had become so defensive, when a rival owner toasted his horse at a party and said “Mucha suerte,” (good luck), Arias felt he was mocking him. “Everyone made us very angry,” he said.

Three days before the race, jockey Gustavo Avila, known in Venezuela as “El Monstruo” (the monster),  arrived at Churchill Downs. So little was known about Canonero, the Daily Racing Form past performance lines for his last three starts provided virtually no information. All it said was, “Missing date unavailable at this time.”

Arias had one more trick up his sleeve. On Derby morning, he put a saddle on Canonero for the first since arriving and worked him under the cover of darkness. 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, 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 trash 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.

Among those watching the race was Cot Campbell, who had rejected him as a yearling. When he saw Canonero charging down the stretch, sure enough, he was still throwing that right leg out. All he could think of was that he could have had the Kentucky Derby winner for $1,200.

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.

When Arias later crossed paths with the owner who toasted his horse at the party, he broke into a smile, raised his hand as if proposing toast, and said, “Mucha suerte.”

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.

That night, Baptista threw a party for some 200 guests that 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…”

When Sports Illustrated came out, the headline said it all: "Missing Data Unavailable."

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.

Part Two

As the Kentucky Derby hoopla began to quiet down, a stunned racing world was still trying to recover from the bombshell that had fallen on Churchill Downs. An obscurely bred, crooked legged, harlequin of a horse from Venezuela, who had been ridiculed by the press and local horsemen, had just concluded the most bizarre journey and adventure in the history of the Kentucky Derby. Like Clark Kent turning into Superman, Canonero II had turned into the “Caracas Cannonball,” a term by which he became known.

With all of Venezuela still celebrating this unlikely victory, Canonero, trainer Juan Arias, and groom Juan Quintero arrived in Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown.

But, once again, trouble awaited them. Shortly after arriving, Canonero refused to eat. Veterinarian Ralph Yergey was called in to look at the colt, with an interpreter needed for Yergey and Arias to communicate with each other. Canonero had developed a case of thrush, a foot infection usually caused by a horse standing in its own urine.

Not only did Canonero have foot problems, he was also cutting his tongue on a loose baby tooth, and had contracted a low-grade fever. Six days before the Preakness, Dr. Yergey switched his medication from pen-strep, a standard antibiotic mixture, to ampicillin because the lidocaine in the pen-strep would have shown up in a urine test.

Despite Canonero’s powerful victory in the Derby, most people were convinced the race was a fluke. The final time was a slow 2:03 1/5, and Canonero’s running style of coming from 20 lengths back was hardly suitable to the Preakness, which was run at a shorter distance and over a speed-favoring track with tighter turns. It was the fast Calumet Farm colt Eastern Fleet who looked to be the perfect Preakness-type horse, and many of the “experts” seemed to favor him over Canonero.

Disdain for the Derby winner grew after Canonero worked an agonizingly slow five furlongs in 1:06. One trainer commented afterward, “That was about a fifth of a second faster than might have been expected of a plow horse.” Another said, “If I had that horse and he worked that slow, I’d put him on the first slow boat to South America.”

Arias, however, was thrilled with the work. “Perfecto,” he said. “He’s ready for Saturday.” He later told the Baltimore Sun, “They laughed at us in Louisville, and they’re laughing at us in Baltimore. But it is we who will be laughing at the whole racing world!”

What people didn’t realize was that there was a lot more to Canonero than what appeared on the surface. When a Baltimore radiologist, Dr. George Burke, took an electrocardiogram of the horse, he discovered his heartbeat was only 30 beats per minute, which was five less than the average horse. “Fantastic,” Burke said. “That’s as low as a horse will go.”

Canonero and Jim French shared favoritism at 3-1, with Eastern Fleet, the main danger to steal the race on the front end, bet down to 6-1. This time Baptista came for the race. What he and everyone else witnessed was in many ways more remarkable than what had transpired in the Derby. The mindset going into the race was that Canonero, breaking from the disadvantageous 9-post, would again have to drop far out of it and make his big late run over the speed-conducive track. But they forgot that this was no ordinary horse, and that he never did anything by the book.

Eastern Fleet, as expected, shot to the lead, but as shocked as everyone was when Canonero unleashed his 18th to first move in the Derby, they were even more shocked to see him burst out of the gate and go right after Eastern Fleet. How could a horse who came from 20 lengths back in the Derby and then worked a dawdling five furlongs in 1:06 at Pimlico show that much speed?

Canonero sat right off Eastern Fleet and then moved in for the kill as they turned up the backstretch. For the next five-eighths of a mile the two were at each other’s throat. After a half in :47, they sizzled the next quarter in :23 2/5, while opening up five lengths on the rest of the field. The farther they went the more they opened up.

No one could believe what they were seeing, as the pair went the opening six furlongs in a sizzling 1:10 2/5 and the mile in 1:35. Someone had to crack, and it was Eastern Fleet. Canonero, despite running his six furlongs four and two-fifths seconds (or 22 lengths) faster than he had in the Derby, was showing no signs of tiring. He pulled away from Eastern Fleet inside the eighth pole, again still on his wrong lead, and crossed the wire 1 1/2 lengths in front, with Eastern Fleet 4 1/2 lengths ahead of Jim French. The horse people had laughed at as being as slow as a “plow horse” had just run the 1 3/16 miles in 1:54 flat, breaking Nashua’s track record by three-fifths of a second.

Back in Venezuela, five million people watched the race on television, and once again the country erupted in celebration. Baptista rushed to the winner’s circle pumping his fist, then pointed it up to the sky, shouting, “Belmont! Belmont! Belmont!”

When asked how he felt, Baptista said, “We have come up here – two Indians (he and Avila) and a black man (Arias) with a horse that nobody believed in, and we are destroying 200 years of American racing tradition, dominated by the cream of your society. This is a monumental event for international relations. You cannot imagine the impact this has had in Venezuela. Canonero is truly a horse of the people.”

When Arias was asked how he got Canonero to run so fast off such a slow work, all he said was, “They could not hold back destiny.”

Before vanning to Belmont, Canonero was honored at Pimlico between races. He was led onto the track to the playing of the Venezuelan national anthem, as the applause began to build from those in attendance. In the winner’s circle, Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel signed a document proclaiming the members of the Canonero team honorary citizens of Maryland. Arias, Baptista, and Avila, dressed in suits and ties, stood with their arms locked together. Canonero wore four orange bandages and a white cooler, and when Quintero removed his cooler, the horse strutted proudly on the turf course with his ears straight up. But at one point Canonero became spooked and nearly got loose from Quintero who had to hang on for dear life.

When Canonero arrived at Belmont Park, a circus replaced the freak show of Churchill Downs. Between veterinarians and countless advisors to Baptista all trying to run the show, Arias had to deal with new physical problems that were plaguing Canonero, as well as some of the old ones. The colt was still suffering from thrush, and now his right hock had become swollen. He burned his heels while galloping at Belmont, and then came down with a severe skin disease that covered a good portion of his body.

Security was posted at his barn 24 hours a day. He even appeared on the Today Show when former major league baseball player and author Joe Garagiola came out to the barn to “interview” him. Canonero was brought out, and Garagiola stuck a microphone in his face and began asking him questions, such as, “Where’d you get that haircut?”

Canonero’s physical problems forced him to miss several days of training. Like at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, the cynics were out in full force. There was no way a horse in this condition could win the Belmont. “They still think we’re a bunch of crazy Indians,” Arias said.

But deep down Arias knew that this time Canonero would not be at his best. Veterinarian Dr. William O. Reed examined the colt and told Arias he was only 75% ready to go a mile and a half. Even Sports Illustrated tried to convince Arias and Baptista not to run. An editorial that appeared in the magazine a week before the Belmont read: “Perhaps sometime before the Belmont this Saturday, Canonero’s handlers will forego false national pride and scratch the horse. We hope so. He is in bad shape and has been for a week.”

Arias knew in his heart that Canonero probably shouldn’t run, but there was too much at stake, and the trainer still believed the horse could win. After all, this was a horse of destiny and how can you stand in the way of destiny?

All of Venezuela had embraced the horse as a national hero, and throughout the country came the cries of “Viva Canonero!” Plans were in the works to erect a statue of him at La Rinconada. Songs about Canonero were being played on the radio. At one civil registry office in Venezuela, a couple submitted the name Canonero Segundo (Canonero the second) for their newborn son. At Belmont, a film was made called “The Ballad of Canonero,” featuring a song of the same name. It was later shown on television and was named best sports film of the year at the 15th “Annual International Film and TV Festival of New York.”

It was too late to turn back now.

A group of about 2,000 Venezuelans made the trip for the Belmont Stakes, many wearing T-shirts reading: “Viva Canonero!” and “Viva Venezuela!” New York’s Puerto Rican community adopted Canonero, and Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics poured into Belmont Park by the thousands. The official crowd of 82,694 destroyed the previous record of 67,961. The new mark would stand for 28 years.

Marshall Cassidy, who worked for the New York Racing Association, remembers the day being "stifling hot." He added, "Our Hispanic-dominated crowd was especially jubilant and rhythmically musical. I never before heard so many bongo drums echoing throughout the Belmont grandstand. There were so many people there that day they broke the toilets."

Hours before the race, radio broadcasters in Venezuela asked the people to honk their car horns and churches to peal their bells at the precise same moment. Right before the race the city of Caracas was like a ghost town, with its citizens glued to their televisions.

As it turned out, Canonero’s many maladies proved much stronger than destiny. The colt went to the front and ran as far and as fast as his battle-weary legs and body could take him. He tried gallantly, but could finish no better than fourth, beaten only 4 1/2 lengths by longshot Pass Catcher. Even as the Derby and Preakness winner began to tire turning for home, cries of “Canonero!” resounded throughout the huge grandstand. Jim French and Bold Reason, two colts Canonero had already manhandled, finished second and third, respectively.

The morning after the race, Dr. Reed examined Canonero and said the colt still was showing signs of extreme fatigue. Baptista looked at the defeat philosophically and told those close to the horse not to hold their heads down. “Be cheerful,” he said. “We have become rich and famous, the horse is all right, and the future is ahead of us.”

Baptista had turned down several lucrative offers for Canonero, but felt the time was now right to sell. Shortly after the Belmont, he sold Canonero to Robert Kleberg, owner of King Ranch, for $1.5 million.

When the news that Canonero was for sale reached Venezuela, Baptista received thousands of letters with money enclosed from people wanting to help bring their hero back home. A number of the letters were from children, many of whom also sent drawings of the horse. Baptista returned everyone's money along with a thank you letter and a poster of Canonero.

Canonero did not run again until the following May, finishing second in the Carter Handicap, but proceeded to lose his next five races as well, with only a second in an allowance race to his credit. It was obvious he was no longer the same horse. His new trainer, Buddy Hirsch, tried blinkers, but that didn’t help. As a last resort, he summoned Canonero’s old jockey, Gustavo Avila, to come up from Venezuela to ride the horse in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Belmont. The colt showed some of his old spark, dashing to the lead and cutting out blazing fractions of :45 1/5 and 1:09 1/5 before tiring to finish a respectable fifth.

With the sleeping giant now showing signs of awakening, Hirsch and Avila agreed that a return to blinkers would help his concentration. Hirsch entered Canonero in the 1 1/8-mile Stymie Handicap on Sept. 20, 1972, where he would be facing that year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Riva Ridge, who was conceding 13 pounds to Canonero. Around the far turn, it was apparent that this was the Canonero of old, as he hooked up with Riva Ridge in a battle of Kentucky Derby winners. As he did with Eastern Fleet, Canonero locked horns with Riva Ridge all the way to the eighth and ran him into the ground, drawing off to a five-length victory. His time of 1:46 1/5 broke the track record by three-fifths of a second and equaled the American record.

There was still greatness in Canonero, who proved his spectacular Derby and Preakness victories were no fluke. But the Stymie was to be his final hurrah. Still plagued by various physical problems, he finished second in an allowance race in the mud and was retired to Gainesway Farm in Lexington, Ky.

Baptista managed to straighten out his business, but died in 1984 at age 57. Arias, despite the fame he achieved with Canonero, never was able to build up his stable, and his career plummeted to the point where he barely was able to eke out a living training one or two horses. Married with two children, he was forced to retire from training and took a government job, working as a technician for Consejo Nacional Electoral. But horses were still in his blood, and on weekends he’d go to La Rinconada to visit with friends and occasionally work with the horses just to be around them, as he had as a youngster.

Avila continued to ride successfully for several years and also rode for a while in the United States. After retiring, he became involved with real estate investments, and then was hired as a steward at La Rinconada. Arias also became a steward, and the two became a team once again. Avila retired, and as of three years ago, at age 70, was leading a private life. Arias also retired, spending most days at the track. He currently is back training on a regular basis and is again winning races.

Canonero never made it as a stallion and was sent back to Venezuela in Feb. 1981 to stand at Haras Tamanaco. The only stakes horse he sired there was the group II-placed El Tejano, who was ridden by none other than Avila.

Arias was always saddened that Canonero never made it as a stallion, feeling he wasn’t given the opportunity. “The quality of mares he was bred to was not appropriate for a horse they expected so much from,” he said.

Even after all these years, Arias admits his eyes still tear up whenever he thinks back on Canonero’s magical journey. “He was a giant in the United States, even though no one believed in him,” he said. “When we arrived in Kentucky, there was nothing but jokes. But Canonero was a battler and had such a big heart.”

On Nov. 11, 1981, that big heart gave out, as Canonero was found dead in his stall. By then, the magnificent decade of the seventies was history, with Secretariat, Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, and Spectacular Bid all stamping their place in the record books. But few remembered that it was Canonero who paved the way for these media stars..

By the time of his death, the cries of “Viva Canonero” had faded to a whisper, and the horse who had electrified the racing world, drawing the largest crowd in Belmont history, had slipped quietly back into the obscurity from which he came.

Canonero’s Derby and Preakness trophies were given to La Rinconada, but they were never exhibited anywhere. The statue of him was never built. As the years pass by and new generations of racing fans emerge, the name of Canonero drifts deeper into memory, as do his amazing feats.

But after four decades, it is time to remember Canonero, and a special time in racing when the entire sport was set ablaze by a horse they called the “Caracas Cannonball.” 

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