When Canonero II won the 1971 Kentucky Derby, he generated a rather modest return for a $2 win ticket.
Yet that $19.40 winning ticket on the "Caracas Cannonball" had nothing to do with the Venezuelan shipper’s merits and everything to do with his inclusion in a gargantuan six-horse mutuel field.
Based on his form and a star-crossed trip to the United States, Canonero probably would have been dismissed at 100-1 odds in the 97th Kentucky Derby. Maybe even 200-1, but nothing even remotely close to his 8-1 odds.
Yet the laughing stock had the last laugh. In an astonishing turn of events, Canonero closed from 18th in a field of 20 to win the Derby by nearly four lengths. Two weeks later, conjecture that his win at Churchill Downs was merely a fluke was dispelled when he won the Preakness in track-record time while racing on the front end.
A true horse of the people, Canonero was embraced by people from all walks of life, especially those from Venezuela who would proudly chant “Viva Canonero” at his races.
A hock injury conspired to end his Triple Crown bid with a fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes, but that disappointing loss could not tarnish his reputation as a folk hero and one of the sport’s most charismatic stars of all time.
“He was a giant in the United States, even though no one believed in him,” his trainer Juan Arias said in 2011 story on the BloodHorse.
While Canonero is most commonly associated with Venezuela, he was actually born in Kentucky as son of Pretendre out of the Nantallah mare Dixieland II.
He was purchased for $1,200 by Pedro Baptista at the 1969 Keeneland September yearling sale, but raced under the name of his son-in-law, Edgar Caibett. His career started on Aug. 8, 1970, with a 6 ½-length win at Rinconada racetrack in Caracas for a purse of just $3,300. The victory inspired his connections to ship Canonero to Del Mar, where he was third in an allowance race and fifth in the Del Mar Futurity.
Returned to Venezuela, he raced nine times at Rinconada and won five times, capped by a third in a Series 4a-5a free handicap at 11⁄8 miles as a 2-to-5 favorite on April 10, 1971.
It was hardly a resume worthy of a Triple Crown candidate, yet Canonero had won a mile and a quarter race at Rinconada, prompting Baptista and Arias to defy the odds and run their horse in the Kentucky Derby. The run for the roses had become wide open when the seemingly unbeatable 2-year-old champion Raise the Flag suffered a career-ending injury on March 31.
Canonero’s journey to the United States for the Derby was akin to a journey during rush hour traffic on a Los Angeles highway. The plane carrying him was forced to turn back twice due to mechanical issues. He finally arrived in Florida via a cargo plane, and then spent four days in withering heat while in quarantine.
A long van ride brought a physically drained Canonero II to Churchill Downs and a :53 4⁄5 five-furlong workout only enhanced the notion that he no chance against America’s best 3-year-olds.
“He didn’t look like he fit in the Derby and you had to wonder why his connections wanted to run in the first place,” said Bill Hirsch, whose father W.J. “Buddy” Hirsch would train Canonero at 4, in a 2011 Thoroughbred Times story. “I didn’t give him much of a chance.”
Regular rider Gustavo Avila flew in to ride Canonero and that told at least one rival that Canonero deserved some consideration in a contentious field of 20.
“Being from Puerto Rico, I knew how good Canonero’s jockey was,” said Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr. in the Thoroughbred Times story, “I knew Gustavo was one of the best jockeys to ever to come out of Venezuela. I befriended him before the Derby and he told me his horse could really run. Coming from him, I respected what he said.”
Not even Cordero, though, could expect what happened in the 97th Kentucky Derby.
Canonero was 18th after the opening half-mile, then launched a dazzling move on the far turn that catapulted him to a three-length lead at the eighth pole and a 3 ¾-length victory over Jim French, who was ridden by Cordero.
“I believed in Avila, but I never thought that horse could run like that,” Cordero said. “I’ve never seen a move that strong in the Derby.”
Many observers believed sanity would be restored in the Preakness due to the shorter distance and a speed-favoring surface at Pimlico. Sent off as the $3.40-to-1 favorite, Canonero proved the naysayers wrong as he not only won the Preakness by a length and a half in track-record time of 1:54, he did it while dueling for the early lead with runner-up Eastern Fleet.
Canonero-mania swept the country and South America as hopes reached a fever pitch that the unheralded Venezuelan would end a 23-year Triple Crown drought. His presence brought a record crowd of 82,694, to the new Belmont Park and its massive grandstand that had been rebuilt just three years earlier. The track was filled with fans from Hispanic cultures, who spent much of the day banging drums, waving flags and chanting for their beloved Canonero.
“There must have been 25,000 people from Venezuela that day,” Cordero said in the Thoroughbred Times. “He brought out a lot of new people and it put a different face on the Belmont. I’ve never seen a Belmont with the joy in the stands and the excitement I saw that day.”
Bill Turner, who would train 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, also noticed a change in New York racing that day, which soon became permanent.
“Canonero woke up the Hispanic community to racing in New York,” Turner said in Thoroughbred Times. “Before that day you didn’t see many Hispanics at the races or on the backstretch. Now they’re a major part of the sport.”
As much as a storybook finish to the Triple Crown seemed to be in the works, there was a dark cloud. Following the Preakness, Canonero developed a skin rash, thrush, and a sore, swollen hock, which prompted Arias to skip several days of training.
“I knew Canonero was not going to win the Belmont,” Cordero said in the Thoroughbred Times. “You can’t afford to have something go wrong if you want to win that race.”
There were thoughts that Canonero should skip the Belmont, but Baptista elected to enter him.
Canonero ran his heart out in the Belmont, leading until the three-eighths pole when Pass Catcher moved past him en route to a three-quarters of a length victory. Canonero, the 3-5 favorite, wound up fourth, beaten 4 ¾ lengths.
“Be cheerful,” Baptista said to Arias after the race, according to a Sports Illustrated story. “We have become rich and famous. The horse is all right and the future is ahead of us.”
The rich part was sealed the night after the Belmont Stakes when King Ranch owner Robert Kleberg agreed to purchase Canonero for $1.5 million.
Canonero, though, arrived at the King Ranch barn in poor shape after his grueling Triple Crown run. It took nearly a full year of dedicated care from Buddy Hirsch to get Canonero back to the races, and his return on May 15, 1972 was promising. The champion 3-year-old male of 1971 finished second on a muddy track in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap while giving five pounds to the mud-loving sprinter Leematt.
Yet the optimism generated by the Carter faded in the face of five straight losses – two of them on turf - with only one finish better than fifth.
“He had a lot of little nagging injuries,” Bill Hirsch said.
Then on Sept. 20, 1972, Canonero ran in a race where he was not the star attraction. He faced Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge in the Stymie Handicap at Belmont. Canonero was sent off at 5-1 odds against 3-5 favorite Riva Ridge, but turned in what would be the best performance of a 23-race career. He beat Riva Ridge by five lengths while setting a track record for a mile and an eighth.
“It was an unbelievable high for all of us to see him run the way he did,” Bill Hirsch said in the Thoroughbred Times. “That was the one day he was as good as he had ever been. I don’t know if anyone could have beaten him that day.”
A month later, Canonero finished second to Autobiography in an allowance race at Aqueduct and Kleberg decided to retire him.
He left the racetrack with non-descript totals of nine wins in 23 starts and earnings of $361,006.
Yet it terms of leaving behind a legacy as a blue-collar hero, few horses from such humble beginnings ever became as much of a rock star as Canonero.
And why not? He was, after all, the most unlikely winner of the Kentucky Derby – no matter what the tote board said.
Fun Facts About Canonero
- His Preakness track record stood until 1984, when it was broken by Gate Dancer (1:53 3/5). Secretariat won the 1973 Preakness in 1:53, but that time was not officially recognized until 2012.
- The Belmont Stakes attendance record of 82,694 lasted for 28 years until 1999, when Charismatic made his bid for the Triple Crown. The crowds at Belmont Park for the Triple Crown wins by Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), or Affirmed (1978) reached a high of 73,857 for Seattle Slew’s sweep.
- In an Aug. 12, 1972, allowance race at Saratoga, Canonero finished second by six lengths to Onion, who would beat Secretariat a year later in the Whitney at the same track.
- Canonero’s victory in the Stymie was doubly satisfying for Kleberg since Stymie had been born at King Ranch.