Canonero vs. Riva Ridge: Battle of Ky. Derby Winners

It looks as though producer/director Salomon Gill is about to get the green light to begin putting his long-awaited movie on Canonero II in motion. Gill already has the script written and finalized and has some big-time talent in cinematography interested in putting this incredible story on the big screen. I have told the story on several occasions in Daily Racing Form and and we all are aware what the "Caracas Cannonball" accomplished in the 1971 Triple Crown. But the Canonero story did not end there. It actually concluded in a blaze of glory at Belmont Park in the 1972 Stymie Handicap in one of the great comebacks of its time, as two Kentucky Derby winners clashed in a battle of champions.

So here is the final chapter of one of the most astounding sagas in the history of Thoroughbred racing.

Once upon a time in a far off land, there lived a Thoroughbred racehorse named Canonero, whose remarkable story whipped through two continents with hurricane-like force, tearing the pages right out of the history books. It is a story long forgotten, but one that should resonate in the minds and hearts of every racing fan young and old. Not just racing fans, but everyone who grew up reading and dreaming about fairy tales and larger than life equine heroes such as the Black Stallion, Black Beauty, and Misty of Chincoteague. It remains the most amazing, improbable story in my 50 years in racing.

The story as I lived it, remembered it, and chronicled it over the years can be read in two parts on the links at the end of this column.

Because of the many unbelievable facets of Canonero’s story, from his birth to his death and through arguably the most tempestuous Triple Crown in memory, I will bypass that aspect of his story, leaving that to the links below, and tell of a race that has faded from memory that took place well after the mystique of Canonero had worn off and he had ventured into the realm of ordinary mortals, or in other words, after he became just another mediocre horse.

But in the end there was still magic in the heart and legs of Canonero, and just when everyone thought he was a washed up imitation of the horse that had conquered one nation and captivated another, he reached back for one final miracle and recaptured his glory in a fleeting moment known as the Stymie Handicap, certainly not one of the bigger stakes on the NYRA calendar.

But let’s back up to the previous year’s Belmont Stakes, where the fairy tale began to unravel. They say too many chefs spoil the broth, and by the time Canonero came to Belmont Park to attempt his sweep of the Triple Crown, the kitchen was swarming with chefs, all providing different recipes, and in this case it proved to be a recipe for disaster. Owner Pedro Baptista had advisors coming out of the woodwork.

Canonero was having physical problems that forced him to miss several days of training prior to the Belmont. Trainer Juan Arias knew deep down that Canonero would not be at his best, but he no longer had the control he did early in the Triple Crown. 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 Canonero’s connections not to run the horse by writing an editorial a week before the race imploring them to withdraw him. The editorial ended with, “He is in bad shape and has been for a week.”

Canonero’s jockey Gustavo Avila said that the colt had been acting well after arriving at Belmont, jumping around and feeling good. But that didn’t last long.

“After that week I left him, because I went to back Venezuela,” Avila recalled. “I went to Pedro’s house a week before the race and I said, ‘Look, the horse hasn’t done any work, we should breeze him a mile if he’s up to it.’

“The mile and a half is a very difficult task. When the horse came out for the Belmont Stakes his hoof was swollen. It was shocking to me. I started to cry because I saw what we had done; that horse hadn’t worked and should not have run in the Belmont.”

Of course, we know how it all turned out, with Canonero setting the pace and hanging in there as best as he could before fading to fourth.

“They criticized me after the race, saying I charged out of the gate like a madman, running a mile and a half,” Avila said. “Canonero was vicious coming out of there and I could not contain him, because we had not worked the horse the whole week. If the horse had worked during Belmont week he would have come out more calm and he could have been placed wherever I wanted. They even criticized me in Venezuela, but nobody knew how he went into the Belmont. He ran a strong mile and a quarter and never gave up.”

To the majority of people, that is the end of the Canonero story. An unfortunate conclusion to a Triple Crown that left people stunned at what this skinny, crooked legged horse, who had been regarded as a joke at Churchill Downs and a fluke at Pimlico, had accomplished, from his spectacular run from 18th to first in the Kentucky Derby; setting a track record in the Preakness, running the Florida Derby winner Eastern Fleet into the ground after a long head and head battle on the lead; and drawing a record crowd of over 82,000 fans to the Belmont Stakes to see this Venezuelan wonder horse, who cost a meager $1,200 at the Keeneland September yearling sale, complete arguably the most unbelievable series of races in memory.

In Venezuela, Canonero had the whole country celebrating in the streets following the Derby, and people were naming their babies after him. To show what a phenomenon he had become, the official Belmont attendance of 82,694 destroyed the previous record of 67,961 and would stand for 28 years.

Avila, known in Venezuela as “The Monster,” had been along for the ride of his life, and could recall that day the previous spring when Pedro Baptista called him and asked him bluntly, “Are you famous?” Avila, not knowing what he was getting at, told him he believed he was famous in Venezuela, to which Baptista replied, “You are going to be more famous. We are running Canonero in the Kentucky Derby.” Avila’s only response was, “Are you crazy, Pedro?”

That began arguably the most implausible story in the annals of the Triple Crown.

His immediate thought was he would accept the mount, but as he said, “I could never have imagined all the history that Canonero was going to make.”

Immediately following the Belmont Stakes, Canonero was sold for $1.5 million to King Ranch owner Robert Kleberg.

But the magic that everyone witnessed in the spring of 1971 soon disappeared and Canonero did not run again until the following May, finishing second in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap. However, he proceeded to lose his next five races as well, with only a second in an allowance race to his credit. He was sent off at 5-2 in the Met Mile and staggered home in eighth. His new trainer Buddy Hirsch tried him on the grass twice, but he finished out of the money in both races. Hirsch even tried blinkers in the Tidal Handicap, but Canonero never picked up his feet.  Following a well-beaten second to Onion in a seven-furlong allowance race at Saratoga, it was time for Kleberg to take drastic measures. No one had any explanation how a horse who had attained such incredible heights could deteriorate to such an extent. It was as if Canonero no longer had any interest in being a racehorse.

It was hard to believe this was the same horse who had transcended the Sport of Kings the year before to become an international hero. The fact is he wasn’t the same horse. He had plunged past mediocrity to become a horse who was either incapable or unwilling to perform even at an allowance level. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories, and even the frenzy of the Belmont Stakes, seemed like an aberration that was quickly fading from memory.  Had it all been an illusion? Was this really the “Caracas Canonball” who inspired the cry of “Viva Canonero!” throughout two continents?

When racing returned to Belmont Park, Kleberg decided to look for a miracle, and the only miracle he could think of was Gustavo Avila.

When Kleberg, who spoke Spanish, was invited to Venezuela by the Venezuelan Jockey Club, he made it a point to seek out Avila.

“We were talking at the time and he asked me an important question,” Avila recalled. “We talked for about an hour, and he asked me if I could go to the United States to work with Canonero because the horse was not in very good condition. He had been very bad, and did not want to work, plus the trainer had already rejected him completely. I told Mr. Kleberg I was not a horse tamer or a trainer, just simply a jockey.

“He told me that he was interested in my services. He asked me to go to New York to see what condition the horse was in. I told him that I had many commitments in Venezuela, but he said he still wanted me to go to New York. I thought about it for the next week, but I didn’t really believe Mr. Kleberg would follow up on it.”

Despite having commitments in Venezuela, Avila decided to accept the invitation, and Kleberg agreed on his fee to travel to New York. He immediately sent him tickets, and the following day Avila found himself back at Belmont Park. But the horse he saw bore no resemblance to the old Canonero.

“I arrived at the stable and talked with the trainer and he just told me bad things,” Avila said. “He didn’t want to know anything about the horse because he felt he was done and had nothing left to offer. This was a horse that won the Kentucky Derby and he deserved respect. I spoke with the foreman and the groom, and when I saw the horse, it was like he was completely disguised. They changed the snaffle bit, and he was completely different horse. I knew him very well in every way, and I started to work with him. He just wanted to jump the fence. It took me a while to straighten him out and give him the confidence and the love he had the year before. I kept asking the groom how he was being fed, if he was eating well. I let the horse do what he wanted to do and never pressed him.”

After a while it became like old times, as horse and jockey were reunited and again were in sync with each other. Finally, Kleberg said to Avila, “Gustavo, do you think we can run an allowance race?” Avila told him he hadn’t breezed him and that the horse was still getting fit. But the allowance race was on the schedule to serve as a prep for the Stymie Handicap, so Avila began to tighten up on him and gave him longer gallops and he responded beautifully. Even the groom noticed the transformation and asked Avila what he had done to the horse.

But Canonero was only about 60% going into the allowance race, according to Avila, who gunned him to the front and opened up a five-length lead. Canonero still led past the eighth pole, but tired late to finish fifth. Although he was beaten again, he had shown some life for the first time, blasting out of there and setting fast fractions of :45 2/5 and 1:09 1/5. So it was no surprise that he tired a bit at the end.

That set him up perfectly for the mile and an eighth Stymie, run three weeks later. A week before the race, Avila, like everyone else, found out that that year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge was also pointing for the Stymie. It seemed like an odd spot to tackle older horses, having to give Canonero 13 pounds. Riva Ridge was coming off a fourth-place finish in the Monmouth Invitational Handicap, after which owner Penny Tweedy claimed the colt was gotten to, showing all the signs of a horse who had been drugged. And she stated her suspicions in public.

So, the Stymie Handicap now shaped up as a rare showdown between Kentucky Derby winners. The last time anyone could remember that happening was when the 1955 Derby winner Swaps beat 1954 Derby winner Determine in the Californian Stakes. But Canonero had been a shell of his former self and Riva Ridge looked to have a huge advantage despite the weight difference.

Avila knew that after the allowance race, Canonero no longer was the come-from-behind horse everyone had seen all year. He was aware of the speed the colt possessed from the way he won the Preakness, charging out of the 9 post and going right after Eastern Fleet, much to the shock of everyone who had seen him come from the clouds to win the Kentucky Derby.

For the Stymie, the blinkers were put back on Canonero to hone his speed and try to keep him more focused, as they knew a head to head battle with Ridge Ridge was almost a certainty. Riva Ridge seemed so dominant even with the weight concession he was sent off as the overwhelming 3-5 favorite, with Canonero at 5-1. Also in the field was the hard-knocking 5-year-old Loud, winner of the 1970 Travers Stakes who had placed twice in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, as well as the Man o’ War Stakes. This year he was coming off a victory in the Governor Stakes at Belmont Park and had finished third in the Whitney and Grey Lag Handicaps.

Riva Ridge, as expected went for the lead, with Avila reeling Canonero back in third, two lengths back. Down the backstretch, Avila let out a notch on Canonero and he quickly moved up to challenge Riva Ridge. The battle of the Kentucky Derby winners was on. It was obvious this was not the Canonero that had played dead all year, unable to beat mediocre horses or even finish in the money in most of his races.

The pair continued to battle eyeball to eyeball around the far turn, tearing through the third quarter in :23 2/5 to complete the six furlongs in 1:09 3/5. They turned for home still at each other’s throat. It was starting to look like the Preakness all over again, with Canonero expected to be the one who cracked under the pressure. But once again, it was his opponent who got run off his feet by the sheer power, speed, and will of Canonero, who inched away to a half-length lead at the eighth pole, run in a sizzling 1:33 2/5. It was too much for Riva Ridge and he gave way, but Canonero, as he did in the Preakness, kept going strong to the wire, drawing off to win by five lengths, setting a new track and American record of 1:46 1/5. Riva Ridge never quit, finishing six lengths ahead of Loud, but was no match for Canonero.

How did this happen? Those who had seen Canonero run all year were shocked at the depths the colt had descended and how inept he had become. Now they were just as shocked to witness one of the most dramatic transformations in the other direction. And to do it against the Kentucky Derby, Belmont, Hollywood Derby, and Blue Grass winner and the previous year’s 2-year-old champion made it all the more astounding. Riva Ridge and his connections never knew what hit them.

“After the race I went back to the barn and we toasted the victory,” Avila said. “I told Mr. Kleberg, ‘We have the best horse in the United States.’ He looked at me and just said, ‘Thank you.’ I thought he thanked me because we had won the Stymie and recovered the old Canonero. But he told me that the horse would not run anymore, because of what he was now worth for breeding. For me he was at that time the best horse in the United States; a horse that made himself. Noble horses can do that.”

Canonero not only had made himself, he had found himself. And on this day, he once again was that noble creature who had taken the sport by storm the year before.

“That race was so memorable,” Avila said. “I believe no one in Venezuela will ever forget that triumph over another Kentucky Derby winner. Young people still remember Canonero, not because they saw me ride him, but because their parents and grandparents did.

And now we have that movie project, which I am sure is going to be a hit here in the United States. It is going to be better than many of the horse movies, because it is not only interesting, it is important.”

People remember the 1970s as racing’s Golden Age, with heroes such as Secretariat, Forego, Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, and Spectacular Bid. It was a decade that saw three Triple Crown winners. But few remember that it was Canonero who lit the fire of the ‘70s, who brought the sport back in the national spotlight and on to the headlines of newspapers across the country, paving the way for what was to follow.

Unfortunately, lost in all the memorable Triple Crown races of the decade is the Stymie Handicap, which has been relegated to a mere footnote in history.

But those who witnessed this epic showdown and shocking outcome will always remember the day the magic returned to one of the most astounding horses in history.


Viva Canonero! Part 1

Viva Canonero! Part 2

Recent Posts


More Blogs