The Catalog Page
The tale of Canonero II’s adventure in the 1971 Triple Crown is one of the most intriguing in North American racing history. How could a $1,200 horse with a rather obscure pedigree come all the way from Venezuela and defeat the best three-year-olds in the United States? Well, it been said that anything is possible in horse racing — and the bay son of Pretendre perfectly exemplifies this.
Before reliving the actual races, however, I will talk about an anecdotic episode that involved a very well-known horseman and, of course, Canonero II.
Cothran “Cot” Campbell, founder of Dogwood Stables, was at Keeneland in the fall of 1969 checking on several yearlings that were going to the sales ring. Revising his catalog, he noticed Hip #558, a bay colt from Pretendre out of the Nantallah mare Dixieland II. Somehow his pedigree suggested ability for longer distances, so he requested to see him.
He didn’t like what he saw.
The yearling just had a good size, but his right front leg was so crooked it looked like it was going in another direction as he walked. Campbell wasted no time in dismissing the horse, writing a note in his catalog: “Right front?” He witnessed the moment the colt was sold for a paltry $1,200, sitting in the front row of the sales pavilion. He even smiled thinking that the poor horse wouldn’t be able to stand training, much less make it to the races. Mr. Campbell pitied the unfortunate buyer and congratulated himself for avoiding such an ill investment. Needless to say, he immediately forgot the defective bay colt…
But the defective bay colt was soon to prove him wrong.
Cot Campbell was at Churchill Downs that May 1, 1971. A field of 20 three-year-olds passed by the stands for the first time, each one in pursuit of a place in history as the winner of the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown. The roaring crowd cheered as jockeys and horses were doing their best to secure a good position before the first turn.
At the 3/16-pole, the noise intensified as the favored Calumet Farm entries were poised to have a say in the outcome of the Run for the Roses. Front-running Bold and Able was trying to hang on to the lead, while Eastern Fleet squeezed through the rail and took over at the top of the stretch.
A few seconds later, cheering turned into gasping. Others simply went silent. No one gave credit to what was happening. And, yes, there was Cot Campbell, watching in awe and realizing that the crooked horse he dismissed at the Keeneland sale had circled the field and was on his way to win the Run for the Roses.
Mr. Campbell remembers this passage in his book “Lightning in a Jar”, a title that describes how difficult it is to have a Kentucky Derby winner. He certainly had a chance back in 1969. The day after the Derby, he went to his office and found the Keeneland catalog. He browsed it and found the infamous page, which he has kept ever since. Campbell said that anytime he felt too high on himself, he would look at his notes on Hip #558 to regain perspective.
A good friend of mine, filmmaker Salomon Gill, interviewed Cot Campbell a few years ago for a documentary he co-produced about Canonero II (“Viva Canonero”) He knew I had previously written about this anecdote and asked Campbell to show him the catalog page. Salomon took a picture of it and generously e-mailed it to me. It is a single image, but one that generated an amazing story.
Next: From Caracas to Louisville