The 'Monster' Returns to Belmont

California Chrome is one of a select handful of Cinderella stories that captivated the country during the Triple Crown. There have been a number of horses who have won the first two legs that were embraced by the public because of the historical significance of their quest to capture the elusive Belmont Stakes, once considered “The Test of the Champion.”

But once in a rare while, like this year, you get that one special story and special horse that defies all common logic and brings Thoroughbred racing into the minds and hearts of mainstream America. It is then that the people converge on Belmont Park and cram their way into every corner of these hallowed grounds. It will happen this year, just as it happened in 2004 with Smarty Jones, and well before that with the original rags to riches hero, Canonero II. Those who were present in 1971 can still hear the cries of “Viva Canonero” reverberating throughout the grandstand, as thousands upon thousands flocked to Belmont Park from Venezuela to Spanish Harlem. The result was a record-shattering crowd of 82,694, which would last for 28 years.

Now, after more than four decades, a major part of the Canonero saga has made its way back to Belmont Park, where the most improbable of dreams ended in rude fashion, but also where a new amazing chapter was added the following year. Attending the Belmont Stakes post position draw was Canonero’s jockey Gustavo Avila, known in his native Venezuela as “The Monster.”

The remarkable story that unfolded in 1971 and helped unite two continents in one common cause currently is being told in a new book by Milton C. Toby, in which I had the honor and privilege of writing the Foreword. And pre-production, casting, and location has begun on a new movie by Los Angeles filmmaker Salomon Gill of Celestial Filmworks, called “Viva Canonero” that is scheduled to begin filming next March. Gill has already completed a dramatic and beautifully filmed 17-minute documentary about Canonero that should whet the appetite of all those who love horses and embrace the sport’s unlikeliest of heroes.

For those who know little about Canonero II, his is a story about a crooked-legged horse by obscure parents, who was sold for a paltry $1,200 and arrived in Venezuela with a split hoof and a bad case of worms. Turned over to trainer Juan Arias, who had grown up in the slums of Caracas, Canonero embarked on arguably the most amazing journey in the annals of Thoroughbred racing, beginning with his flight to the United States on a plane filled with chickens and ducks and continuing through his breathtaking victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

In between were a series of mini dramas that would come together to produce an epic tale of the Turf that defied all logic and conventional thinking. There was nothing logical or conventional about Canonero or his story, which included the owner’s deceased mother appearing in a dream to foretell the story that was about to unfold, a crumpled cocktail napkin that could have altered the course of history, and a number of uncommon ailments, none of which could stop this runaway express train until the final leg of the Triple Crown.

By then, the ugly duckling that was considered a mockery in the U.S. after arriving in Kentucky had become a national hero in both South and North America, and the pride of Spanish-speaking people from both continents.

As I concluded in my most recent column on Canonero a few years ago: “When Canonero died at Haras Tamanaco in 1981 after returning to Venezuela, 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 Racetrack, but they were never exhibited anywhere. The statue of him that had been commissioned was never built. As the years pass by and a new, younger core of high-tech racing fans emerge with little grasp of history, the name of Canonero drifts deeper into memory, as do his amazing feats.”

But thanks to the superb book by Milton Toby and the incredible passion of Salomon Gill, who, for the past few years has been driven in his quest to tell the colt’s story, the name of Canonero will be resurrected long enough to lure in a new generation of racing fans.

That is why it was such an honor meet Gustavo Avila, who remains good friends with Canonero’s trainer Juan Arias, who was too ill to attend. And the two often get together at La Rinconada Racetrack and reminisce about Canonero and those magical days.

“I haven’t been to Belmont since I won the Stymie Handicap on Canonero in 1972,” Avila said through an interpreter. “It’s very exciting to be back. Juan Arias is still training horses and winning races occasionally. We always get together at the racetrack and still talk about Canonero and the Triple Crown.”

As a side note, Canonero’s worst performance in Venezuela was an 11th-place finish in the Clasico Prensa Nacional. The horse that won that race, named Yves, was trained by Manny Azpurua, who, at age 85, recently finished third in the Preakness with Social Inclusion, owned by Venezuelan Ron Sanchez of Rontos Stable, who remembers his father telling him stories of Canonero.

Avila said, although Canonero had a nightmare trip to Churchill Downs, he still was confident he was going to win the Derby. People would find that difficult to believe, considering the colt’s plane had to return to Caracas twice; he was put in quarantine for 48 hours in Florida’s stifling heat because the horse’s papers were never sent; he lost 70 pounds; and then had to van from Miami to Louisville, because there wasn’t enough money to fly him there. He finally arrived at Churchill Downs one week before the Derby and was not allowed entrance into the backstretch because no one on the van spoke English and they had to wait for the horse’s identification to be verified. Even then, they had to quickly search for a stall in which to put him, because the stall superintendent had no idea he was coming.

Although Canonero and Arias became the joke of the backstretch, with Arias carrying on conversations with Canonero in his stall, asking him if he felt like training that day, Avila’s confidence grew when trainer Angel Penna asked him to get on his Derby contender Bold Reason.

“Angel Penna loved his colt’s chances and asked me if I wanted to get up on the Derby winner,” Avila recalled. “I exercised him all week, and when I worked Bold Reason in company with a horse Penna had brought with him I knew Canonero was going to win the Derby. If this was one of the best horses in the race, I was very confident Canonero could beat him.

“The way Canonero ran in the Derby, everyone thought he was just a (plodder) who came from far back, but we got bumped at the start of the race and I knew I needed to let Canonero settle and relax if he was to have any chance to win.”

Although Canonero shocked the world with his sweeping move and powerful stretch run to win going away by almost four lengths, most everyone felt he had little chance shortening up in the Preakness and having to face new shooters, as well as the tough Jim French and the speedy Calumet Farm colt Eastern Fleet, winner of the Florida Derby who got caught up in a speed duel in the Kentucky Derby and definitely would appreciate the shorter distance of the Preakness. The bottom line was that Canonero simply was too slow to win the Preakness.

When Avila returned to Caracas following the Derby, he received a hero’s welcome from a city and country that was in the midst of wild celebration.

“When I returned, it was one big party,” Avila said. “Everybody was celebrating in the streets. It was crazy.”

As shocked as everyone was in the Derby, they were even more shocked in a way in the Preakness, as Canonero, breaking from the outside, came charging out of the gate and engaged Eastern Fleet for the lead on the first turn. The two hooked up in a torrid speed duel, going the first three-quarters in 1:10 2/5. They remained at each other’s throat around the far turn, while separating themselves from the others. Someone had to crack. After turning for home, Canonero began to ease clear of Eastern Fleet and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths, running the fastest Preakness in history, while breaking the track record held by the great Nashua by three-fifths of a second.

“The surface at Pimlico was much harder than Churchill Downs and I knew we needed to jump out of the gate and run hard from the start and not let Eastern Fleet get away from us,” Avila said. “That was more his running style, not the way he ran in the Derby. He was much better going into the Preakness than he was going into the Derby. And it wasn’t until after the Preakness that he finally was 100 percent. He just kept improving and showing what kind of a horse he really was. When he won the Derby he was no more than 80 percent.”

By now, Canonero, Arias, and Avila were heroes in Venezuela, and plans were already in the works to erect a statue of Canonero at La Rinconada.

But Canonero, who had to overcome one physical problem after another, was having more problems at Belmont Park, and was so unprepared for a race like the Belmont Stakes, Sports Illustrated put out an editorial pleading with Canonero’s connections not to run the horse in the Belmont. Veterinarian Dr. William Reed said the colt was only 70 percent ready to run. But by now, owner Pedro Baptista was being besieged with advice from just about everyone and was only focused on fulfilling the dream.

“I came to New York a week before the Belmont,” Avila said. “I knew the horse hadn’t trained for four days. When I got there on Monday, they said he had not exercised since Friday because of a problem with his foot. The rest of the week he only jogged on certain days. I felt he had come out of the Preakness in the best shape of his life, but sadly he couldn’t be trained because of his hoof problem.”

Avila put Canonero right on the lead in the Belmont, as a deafening roar went up from the crowd, highlighted by the cries of “Viva Canonero!” Canonero gave it all he had, but as the crowd was going crazy and Venezuelan flags were waving frantically throughout the grandstand, the Cinderella story ended, as Canonero began to tire. Despite all his physical problems, he never gave up. He kept running as hard as he could, finishing fourth, beaten only 4 1/2 lengths.

Shortly after the Belmont, Canonero was sold to Robert Kleberg’s King Ranch and turned over to trainer Buddy Hirsch. But he was not the same horse. He did not run again at 3, and after finishing second in the Carter Handicap in his 4-year-old debut, he turned in a series of poor efforts, on dirt and grass. Then Kleberg had a brainstorm. He contacted Avila and asked him to come back the U.S. and work with Canonero.

“He wasn’t a happy horse as a 4-year-old and the trainer didn’t know what to do with him,” Avila recalled. “Mr. Kleberg asked me to come back and work with him every day, which I did for a couple of months. He got to know me again and I could see him returning to the Canonero I used to know. His whole temperament changed and he became the same horse he was the year before. Slowly, he got his confidence back.”

Avila rode Canonero in the 1 1/8-mile Stymie Handicap at Belmont, where he would face that year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge. It was a rare battle of Kentucky Derby winners.

Just like in the Preakness, a now revitalized Canonero hooked up with Riva Ridge and the pair went eyeball to eyeball every step of the way down the backstretch and around the far turn. And just like in the Preakness, it was Canonero who drew away, this time to a five-length victory in 1:46 1/5, establishing a new American record. Canonero and Avila again were one. And once again, America was reminded just how special and remarkable a horse this was.

But when Canonero could finish no better than second in an allowance race in the mud, Kleberg felt it was time to retire him.

“I felt he still was the best horse in America on his best day, but Mr. Kleberg said ‘Thank you very much, but he’s going to stud to be a stallion,” Avila said.

So ended the incredible saga of Canonero, the crooked-legged, obscurely bred colt who would become one of the most amazing horses ever to grace the American Turf.

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.” And it was great to see Gustavo Avila to remind me of a time when racing was new and fresh and pure, and of a horse who will always remain close to my heart. And just seeing Avila and listening to his stories reassured what I already knew; that the cries of “Viva Canonero!” will never be silenced.

Gustavo Avila and Canonero in the Kentucky Derby Winner's Circle - Blood-Horse Library

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