Canonero II was the ultimate hard luck horse. He had a front leg so crooked that it was feared that he would never race, and was sold for $1,200 at the Keeneland September sale, after being rejected for the more prestigious July sale. This might not have been unexpected; his dam, in foal to him, had brought only $2,700 at the November Sale two years earlier. He was thought such a poor racing prospect that he was shipped off to Venezuela, and in the minds of his handlers, no doubt a well-deserved obscurity. And yet in 1971, he stunned the racing world by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the latter in record time, for what many consider the greatest upset in modern Derby history.
In doing so, Canonero II taught us a little bit about how even the sport of kings can fall in love with a Cinderella from abroad, and also a little bit about the psychology of crowds.
In 1971, I was 12 years-old, and the Kentucky Derby, and in my view, most of my relatives, were close to 100. That didn’t keep me from joining in their excitement each year as the Derby approached, or from listening to their betting tips. The levels of interest of my relatives varied, from my father who was and is a considerable handicapper, to those, like my great Uncle Earle, late of Heidelberg, Kentucky, who were more philosophical observers.
As the big race approached, it looked like a group of the usual suspects, that is, a few well-bred colts who got all the attention. You had Bold Reason, sired by Hail to Reason, not well known today, but the leading sire in North America in 1970. Bold Reason wasn’t a bad runner, winning the American Derby, Lexington Handicap, and Travers Stakes as a three year old, but not the Kentucky Derby. His greatest success, though, was as a sire of broodmares; he is the grandsire, on the distaff side, of Sadlers Wells.
There were the two Calumet Farm entries, Bold and Able and Eastern Fleet, each rich with Nasrulllah blood, though only Bold and Able had Bold Ruler blood, which is to say Nasrullah blood, on both sides. They were carrying the devil’s red silks of the most distinguished racing stable in America.
Jim French, every bit as well bred, sired by the great Graustark, got some copy by virtue of having been bred by the owner of the Buffalo Bills football team, Ralph Wilson.
And, as far as the racing press was concerned, that was about it, and they weren’t all that impressed with all that breeding. Churchill Downs’ handicappers segregated six of them, including Canonero II into a pari-mutuel field (that is a bet on the field paid off if any horse in it won the race). Other than Canonero II himself, the handicappers got it about right: The other five horses were the last to finish. Always supporting the underdog, though, my great Uncle Earle declared that he’d put two dollars “on the field.” Naturally, I agreed, making me a brilliant handicapper at the age of 12.
As the great Canadian turf writer George F. T. Ryall, writing as Audax Minor, groused in the NewYorker:
“There were twenty starters this year – the most since 1951 – and it was the opinion of racing folk that they were the most mediocre three-year-olds anyone could remember seeing in the classic. Tommy Trotter, the handicapper to the Jockey Club, who rated them in the Experimental Free Handicap, said there wasn’t a solid horse in the lot, and Jonny Campo, who trains Jim French, said on television before the race that the field was too large for this Derby to be truly run.”
Certainly amid all that mediocrity, no one was looking at Canonero II, the hard luck horse from Venezuela, where in his last start before the Derby, he’d come in third in an obscure stakes race with a top prize of $3,500. No one was sure why the horse had been shipped to Louisville for the Derby, though rumor had it that the owner had dreamed that his deceased mother told him that Canonero II would win the Kentucky Derby. But no one in the American racing establishment could confirm this with his trainer or jockey, neither of whom could speak English.
Of course, the miracle occurred, the dream came true. Back in 18th place at the first turn, Canonero II, under the Venezuelan jockey Gustavo Avila, made his place in history by hanging on while others faded, winning the race by an impressive 3 3/4 lengths, but at an unimpressive speed of 2:03 1/5.
The consensus at the time seems to have been not that Canonero II won the race, but that everyone else had managed to lose it. He was the Rodney Dangerfield of the racing world. My great uncle Earle, despite the correctness of his proposed wager on the field — the fact that he didn’t lay his $2 down cost him $19.40 — was also a doubter. His theory was that the colt, fresh from Argentina, was so scared by the crowd at Churchill Downs that he ran the race of his life.
Earle doubted that he could repeat the performance. Back to Ryall, in the New Yorker:
“Two things helped Canonero II: He kept out of traffic jams, and the early pace was fairly fast. The first quarter was run in 0:23, the half in 9:45 4/5, and the mile in 1:36 1/5. The final time for the mile and a quarter was 2:03 1/5, so it took twenty-seven seconds – buggy-horse time – to run the last quarter! Anyhow, Jim French was second. He looked good in the parade, despite the hard campaign he’s had. I could find no excuses for Unconscious or Twist the Axe. The others? A man would be out of luck if he owned and had to feed them, or most of them.”
Two weeks later in the Preakness, though, even Ryall — along with Earle — became a believer:
“So Canonero II did it again! In as enthralling a race as you could wish for, the Venezuelan- owned Kentucky-bred Derby winner took the Preakness Stakes by a length and a half from Eastern Fleet . . . Eleven ran, but the dramatic struggle was between only the first two. From a good start, Eastern Fleet carried the devil’s-red silks of Calumet Farm in front past the stand and round the clubhouse turn, his long tail streaming straight out behind him. As they swung into the backstretch and came to the five-furlings pole, Canonero II, who was out of the gate almost as quickly, joined him, and from there on they went stride for stride, with lengths of open daylight between them and the others, none of whom had what looked like a chance. As they rattled along, a man beside me on the roof of the stand said to nobody in particular, ‘They’re going too fast.’ I thought so, too, and wondered which would be the first to crack. Neither did, but the pace began to slow down on the turn for home (the fractional times for the mile and three-sixteenths were 0:23 2/5, 0:47, 1:10 2/5, 1:35, 1:54 – a new course record, by the way), and Jim French, who had been sixth or so, came sailing along to finish third.”
Even in defeat, the Calumet horses get a mention from Ryall, who had already compared Eastern Fleet’s long flowing tail to that of Whirlaway, who had won the Triple Crown 30 years earlier:
“Somebody asked Reggie Cornell, who trains the Calumet horses, if he’d braided a ten-dollar bill in Eastern Fleet’s tail – an old racing custom. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t do that anymore. Last time I did it, years ago, the so-and-so led by five to the sixteenth pole. Then, bang! Something came up and beat him at the wire.’”
My old friend Kent Hollingsworth, longtime Editor and Publisher of the Blood-Horse, and one of the keenest observers of American racing, also became a believer:
“With his Kentucky Derby style of running (an unhurried 18th on the first turn and down the backstretch) firmly fixed in our mind, we were totally unprepared to believe it was Canonero II rushing up on the outside to challenge Eastern Fleet on the first turn of the Preakness.
“Well, we thought, Canonero II has run off with his boy. Eastern Fleet will knock the wind out of him going down the backstretch. Then, as they battled head and head, five lengths in front of the rest of the field, down the backstretch, and around the last turn – we began to realize, again, how wrong we can be.”
After the Preakness, Canonero II captured the imagination of America, and became a particular favorite of the Latino community, then not nearly as large in most of America as today. As the crowd gathered for the Belmont, Kent wrote that half of Venezuela was watching the Belmont on a special TV hookup arranged for the event, while the other half was there in person. The interest in Canonero II among Hispanic New Yorkers swelled the crowd to record capacity. The same Ryall who would scarcely give Canonero II the time of day after his Derby win was gushing in the New Yorker issue immediately before the Belmont:
“Little or nothing occurred last week to alter the almost general opinion that Canonero II will win the Belmont Stakes . . . on Saturday, and with it the Triple Crown and glory for Venezuela. There’s no possible doubt that he was the best horse in the Kentucky Derby, and his almost incredible performance in the Preakness Stakes will be remembered for a long time by everyone
who saw it.”
What no one knew was that Canonero II had a hoof infection going into the race, and was not fully sound. In retrospect, it was probably negligence, or worse, on the part of his trainer to enter him in the race at all. He still ran a creditable, though not a winning, race, running a good mile, and then running out of steam, still placing fourth.
Ryall, in the New Yorker, was still a believer:
“He was in a state of complete exhaustion for days after the Belmont Stakes, and still walks in a gingerly way, with his head down. All the horsemen I’ve talked to about him agree that, considering his preparation in the fort-night before the race, he was hardly fit to run the mile and a half. Juan Arias, who trains him, has admitted that because of an infection in a hoof, and other leg trouble, he hadn’t done as much with Canonero II as he would have liked, but he had hoped for the best. For my part, I do not think that, in the circumstances, Canonero II has had the praise he deserves for a gallant performance. He ran his heart out going as far as he could go – more than a mile at a smart pace. He gave everything he had, and no horse can do more than that. In my book, he’s the hero of the 1971 Belmont Stakes.”
Kent agreed with the assessment, in a passage I find so characteristic of his work that I included it in my profile of him:
“Nearly everyone wanted Canonero II to win the Triple Crown. He was the storybook horse, the cheap yearling with a crooked leg, shipped unnoticed to another country and returned with the same fanfare, only to drop out of the clouds and win the Kentucky Derby, confirming his excellence by a track-record performance in the Preakness.”
“He had overcome all manner of adversities that would have been valid excuses for other classic candidates. He became a symbol of anti-establishment challenging The Jockey Club (whose members now have won eight of the last 10 Belmont Stakes), owned, ridden, and trained by two Indians and a black who do not speak English.”
As with so many Triple Crowns, the dream ended with the Belmont. Canonero II was sold to the racing stable of the famous King Ranch in Texas, where he recovered from his hoof ailments long enough to win the Stymie Handicap in record time at Belmont, achieving the victory at that track — over Derby winner Riva Ridge, no less — denied him in the Belmont Stakes.
If one of the Calumet horses, or Jim French, had won the Derby that year, it would have been a ho-hum year. Kent suggests that some of the popularity of Canonero II had to do with anti-establishment feeling, and perhaps so, but in looking afresh at the contemporaneous press reports, as I’ve done, I get the stronger feeling that something much simpler was going on: America became enraptured by a longshot, a hard luck horse who seemingly came from nowhere to capture two jewels of the Triple Crown — and the hearts of America. Maybe the real wisdom here is that my great uncle Earle was right, that sometimes a longshot will come in, which is not a bad lesson in life, either.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. As a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life-long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science and was an award-winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s “Good Morning, America.” He writes, posts and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.