What a difference a race makes.
The perception of Canonero II changed drastically after his impressive victory in the 97th Kentucky Derby. Regardless of his background, some people admitted that the son of Pretendre was indeed a deserving winner — more so considering what he had to endure in the two weeks prior to the race. However, there were many others who still didn’t give credit to Canonero II, pointing instead to a supposed lack of quality of the three-year-old crop as the main reason for the colt’s monumental upset.
The “Caracas Cannonball”, as he was now nicknamed, went on to Pimlico to prepare for his next challenge: the Preakness Stakes.
It wasn’t a dream ride, as he suffered a minor cut on his head bumping in the van from Louisville to Baltimore. A week before the Preakness he spiked a little temperature and left his evening ration. It was soon discovered that two baby teeth were bothering Canonero II, so a vet was called to resolve the issue.
His only workout at Pimlico was not appealing: five furlongs in 1:06. Missing two training days could have been the excuse for such a slow work, but trainer Juan Arias was completely OK with it. He argued that Canonero II had no need to excel in the mornings, being the main goal to get him as fresh as possible for race day. This method didn’t convince the experts, who again went against the Venezuelan invader. They claimed that Canonero II wasn’t in the physical condition he needed to be to win and gave him no chance to score at Pimlico, as the plodder he supposedly was.
Again, Arias had to contain himself. This time, however, he only promised to have the last laugh after the Preakness Stakes.
Unlike the Derby, Canonero II was the center of attention at Pimlico, with photographers following him almost everywhere. The day before the Preakness, the bay colt was schooled in the paddock, and then Arias was granted permission to also school him in the winner’s circle, so he could get used to the noise of the crowd and the clicks and flashes of the cameras. Canonero II behaved properly and was ready for the race.
47,221 fans were at Pimlico the afternoon of May 15, 1971. Canonero II and Jim French (second in the Derby) were co-favorites at odds of 3.40-1, while newcomer Executioner was a close third choice at 3.90-1. Even though the “Caracas Cannonball” looked more relaxed and fit in comparison to his Derby form, his odds reflected a sentimental favoritism more than anything. His connections were very confident, this time with owner Pedro Baptista in attendance. The race was broadcast to Venezuela via satellite, and the streets of Caracas were totally empty. Racing fans or not, just about everyone was anxiously awaiting the race.
And again, almost no one was ready for what came next.
Jockey Eddie Maple was determined to get the speedy Eastern Fleet to the rail after breaking from post 5 and, even though he was bumped by Executioner at the start, he was able to go to the front before the first turn, securing his position. Yet, there was Canonero II giving chase and leveling with Eastern Fleet going into the backstretch. Jockey Gustavo Avila wasn’t going to let his rival set the rhythm, so he decided to challenge. This unexpected scenario prompted a very fast pace, with the two colts going in 47 seconds flat for the half-mile and accelerating to a blazing 1:10-2/5 for the three-quarters.
No truce whatsoever, just two horses giving everything they had.
At the far turn, many predicted that both Eastern Fleet and Canonero II would collapse, perhaps giving way to a closer like Jim French… but that didn’t happen.
Turning for home, it was Avila’s turn to shine. He had measured the race with amazing precision. He knew he had more horse than Maple and asked for a final effort from the crooked-legged Derby champ. Canonero II switched leads at the 3/16 pole, clocked a 1:35 flat mile, and moved a length and a half in front of a stubborn Eastern Fleet to the deafening roar of the crowd, crossing the wire in a new track-record time of 1:54 flat. The “Caracas Cannonball” had broken Nashua’s 16-year-old record and proved himself a champion, a horse capable of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Citation.
It was mayhem at Pimlico, but it was also mayhem in Caracas minutes after the Preakness Stakes. People celebrated passionately. Caravans of cars clogged the main streets while the Venezuelan national anthem sounded repeatedly on the radio. An entire country was united in happiness, thanks to the courage of a racehorse.
I had a chance to remember the 1971 Preakness with Gustavo Avila about three years ago. When I asked him about the change of strategy, he just smiled. “We were tipped that the track was going to be extremely fast on the rail to favor Eastern Fleet. When Juan (Arias) learned about it, he ordered short gallops for Canonero II to give him more intention. Everyone thought we were going to come from behind and, boy, did we fool ’em. He performed like never before!”
Next: The end of a fairy tale.