From Caracas to Louisville
The trip from Caracas, Venezuela to Louisville, Kentucky, was not the first travel back to the United States for Canonero II. After a successful debut as a two-year-old at La Rinconada Racetrack on Aug. 8, 1970, the bay colt was sent to Del Mar in California to participate in the Futurity, a race he was nominated to. He was first entered in an allowance race on Sept. 5, 1970 and finished a close third. Seven days later, he ran in the Del Mar Futurity, finishing fifth of nine competitors. Even though he didn’t win, Canonero II was not a total disappointment.
The son of Pretendre was sent back to Caracas.
He raced a total of nine more times, with five wins (one over a mile and a quarter) and three thirds. His only participation in a stakes race in Venezuela resulted in a dismal effort, as he finished last of 11 in the Clasico Prensa Nacional. With six wins in twelve starts, owner Pedro Baptista decided to nominate his crooked-legged horse to the Kentucky Derby, because his mother reputedly told him in a dream that Canonero II was going to win the big race.
The bay colt was going back to the United States, but this time it was a nightmarish trip.
The flight’s first attempt was aborted because of mechanical failure. The second time, the plane had to return to the airport shortly after takeoff, because one of the engines caught fire. Canonero II had to be taken to a cargo plane carrying chickens, since it was the only available flight going to Miami, where he finally arrived with evident signs of fatigue.
Officials at Miami International Airport found no papers for Canonero II, so he had to be retained in the cargo plane for more than 14 hours. The horse became dehydrated and things took a turn for the worse, since he had to be quarantined for four days while blood tests arrived. Once all the paperwork was ready, Canonero II was vanned from Miami to Louisville, a 24-hour, 1,080-mile trip that further diminished the colt.
An ugly mess of a horse finally arrived at Churchill Downs. Neither trainer Juan Arias nor groom Juan Quintero spoke English, so it was an additional two or three hours before Canonero II made it into in the stable area.
And that moment came just a week before the Run for the Roses.
Canonero II thrived during Derby week. He quickly recovered much of the lost weight. It seemed as if his native Kentucky atmosphere was helping him. However, the horse and his connections were the subject of mockery from the press and track people. No one took them seriously — even less so after Canonero II breezed four furlongs in an extremely slow :53-4/5 on Wednesday — a mere three days before the big race.
People called them “clowns” and “nuts”. They even compared Canonero II to a turtle after his very sluggish workout. But Arias, who always said that he could listen to his horse, contained himself, convinced that he was going to be in the winner’s circle on Derby Day.
Gustavo Avila, considered by many to be the best Venezuelan jockey of all time, arrived late Wednesday to ride Canonero II in the 97th Kentucky Derby. He had ridden him three times in Venezuela, winning twice. He knew that the bay colt was a versatile sort, capable of setting the pace or coming from way back if necessary, so a very anxious Arias gave him no instructions prior to the race.
Canonero II was part of the six-horse pari-mutual field that went off at odds of 8.70-1 in the 1971 Derby. (The pari-mutual field was used prior to 2001 whenever there were more than 12 entrants in the big race. As a single entrant, the Caliente Future Book had Canonero II at odds of 500/1.)
The vast majority of the record crowd of 123,284 fans at Churchill Downs couldn’t even imagine what they were about to witness.
A cavalry of 20 horses scrambled for position in the first quarter mile, with Bold and Able forcing the pace from post 1. His entry mate, Eastern Fleet, had no trouble getting to the front from post 17. Meanwhile, Avila let Canonero II go as he pleased, not asking much from him during the first half-mile while running in 17th position, some 20 lengths behind the leaders.
It was a compact field in the backstretch, with only seven lengths separating the first ten horses. Approaching the far turn, the Calumet Farm entry looked solid, with Eastern Fleet on the rail battling with Bold and Able. Unconscious, ridden by Laffit Pincay Jr., was also in good position: fourth at the 3/8ths pole and gaining ground. Suddenly, a horse with brown silks was moving very fast on the outside, passing tired rivals and poised to be a decisive factor in the 1971 Run for the Roses.
Entering the stretch, Bold and Able was desperately hanging on to an evaporating lead. Eastern Fleet seemed poised to take over but was tiring, as was Unconscious. The speed collapsed as Canonero II continued his long drive and, in a matter of seconds, took control of the race, leaving his rivals behind and crossing the wire 3 ½ lengths in front of late-running Jim French. Avila, jubilant, stood in the irons past the wire, while thousands of fans at the track, as well as those watching the race on TV, tried to digest what had happened.
Arias watched the race at the rail with Quintero. When he tried to get to the track and the winner’s circle, he was intercepted by security officials who obviously didn’t know who he was. Thanks to some bilingual friends he finally could grab his classic winner and hug Avila. It was a surreal scene that virtually no one expected to see.
What about the colt’s owner Baptista? He couldn’t afford the trip to Louisville, so he stayed at home in Caracas. He didn’t watch the race, because it was Labor Day in Venezuela and, back then, TV and radio stations didn’t offer any live programming on the holiday. He received a phone call from a friend and he thought it was a joke. When the phone calls multiplied, he finally realized that Canonero II had done it. It was time to celebrate.
Avila was welcomed as a national hero in Caracas the following Monday. He was paraded through the streets of the capital and joined a two-day party thrown by Baptista.
Canonero II and his connections had become instant celebrities, thanks to a dream… an improbable one, but one that came true.
Next: A record-breaking performance.