Viva Canonero! Part Two

(On May 1, I reprinted the amazing story of Canonero II’s shocking victory in the 1971 Kentucky Derby to celebrate its 45th anniversary, and with Venezuelan connections represented in this year’s Derby by Florida Derby runner-up Majesto. As promised, here is the rest of Canonero’s remarkable story).

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 swift-footed Calumet Farm colt Eastern Fleet, brilliant winner of the Florida Derby in fast time and a strong fourth in the Kentucky Derby, 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 at Pimlico 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 owner Pedro 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 rules.

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 pointing 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 jockey Gustavo 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 full-blown circus replaced the freak show of Churchill Downs and Pimlico. 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. Noted New York 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.”

This was unprecedented, having one of the leading magazines in the country come out and literally plead with the owners of a horse not to run, even with the chance of becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 23 years.

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. The decision was not his to make, as Canonero was now being controlled by Baptista’s many advisors. And 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 Racetrack. 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.

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 and bad feet 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.

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 no longer was the same super steed of the previous year’s Triple Crown. The magic was gone, and Canonero was now just another horse. His new trainer, Buddy Hirsch, tried several changes, including adding blinkers  and running on the grass, but that didn’t help. He then took the blinkers back off and put him back on dirt, but there still was little improvement.

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 rare battle of Kentucky Derby winners. As he did with Eastern Fleet, Canonero locked horns with Riva Ridge all the way to the eighth pole 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.

With his old friend back in the saddle, Canonero suddenly was transformed into the explosive phenom that had shocked the racing world the year before. Yes, 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. Finding it tough to break back into training, he worked as assistant to super trainer Gustavo Delgado, who recently came to the U.S. and saddled Majesto in the Kentucky Derby.

Avila, known in Venezuela as “The Monster,” 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 was hired as a steward, and the two became a team once again. Avila retired, and at age 78, he leads a private life. He returned to Belmont Park several years ago and attended the Belmont Stakes. Arias also retired and for a while could be found most days at the track before eventually returning to work with the horses.

Canonero never made it as a stallion and was sent back to Venezuela in February, 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 were nothing but jokes. But Canonero was a battler and had such a big heart.”

On Nov. 11, 1981, 10 years after his historic Triple Crown run, 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 and the resurgence of the sport.

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

Canonero’s Derby and Preakness trophies were given to La Rinconada, but they were not 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 and incredible story.

But after 45 years, 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.”  

(If you missed Part 1, here is the link:

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