The 97th running of the Kentucky Derby was unbelievable, and the credibility gap grew with each television rerun. Field horses, those nondescript supernumeraries who are lumped together as a single betting unit, do not win the Kentucky Derby. Oh, sure, once in a while they do. Baden-Baden did in 1877 and Count Turf in 1951, and there was one other in the 74 years between. But how could a totally obscure colt from Venezuela named Canonero II run away with America's—and maybe the world's—most famous race? Field horses are expected to be the weakest in a race, and last week in Louisville five of the six field horses in the Derby finished precisely where they were supposed to—16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th out of 20. Yet the sixth one, who previously had not aroused much excitement even in Caracas (he was said to be only third best in his own stable), did win the Derby last Saturday at Churchill Downs, and by the commanding margin of 3¾ lengths.
The race was expected to be an open affair, one in which victory by any of seven horses would occasion no surprise. The Calumet Farm entry of Bold and Able and Eastern Fleet, California's Unconscious, the George Poole-trained entry of Impetuosity and Twist The Axe, dependable Jim French and the stretch-running List were all well thought of, and there were a couple of promising long shots in Bold Reason and Vegas Vic. These were the horses to watch and, indeed, they filled eight of the nine finishing positions behind the winner.
But the roses this warm, lovely spring day went to Canonero II. A Kentucky-bred colt who had gone for a minuscule $1,200 at the 1969 Keeneland fall yearling sales, his single shaky claim to consideration was that he was the only one in the race who had won at the Derby distance of 1¼ miles. But his winning time then had been a sluggish 2:08 2/5, and his adventures in the fortnight before the Kentucky race were not calculated to inject further confidence. The plane that flew the colt from Caracas to Miami had to turn back twice with engine trouble. In Florida he was confined to a quarantine stall without exercise for four days, this less than two weeks before the Derby. Then he spent another 24 hours in a van during the 1,100-mile trek from Miami to Louisville, where he arrived exactly a week before Derby Day.
His most recent three races were something of a mystery; he had won twice, yet all that The Morning Telegraph, the horseplayer's bible, could say about them was the telling but redundant comment, "Missing data unavailable at this time." His one serious work at Churchill Downs had no one rushing to the bank for extra betting money. He did have a couple of things in his favor. His sire was Pretendre, who finished second by a neck to Charlottown in the 1966 Epsom Derby, and his dam was Dixieland II, a winner in England and a daughter of Nantallah (the sire of Ridan and the champion filly Moccasin). And he was coming to low-altitude Louisville from high-altitude Caracas, a change that might help equine runners as much as it does the human variety.
Nevertheless, he was considered just one more of the humpty-dumpty colts who were going to clog up the track, prevent a cleanly run race and spoil the chances of the legitimate contenders. As it turned out, Canonero II did not clog it up for anyone, and the big field, while much too large and unwieldy, remained remarkably free of major traffic snarls.
The start, out of two gates put together where the track is at its widest (120 feet), was a good one and, as expected, Bold and Able came charging from the No. 1 stall to take the lead. The other red-bedecked Calumet entry, Eastern Fleet, started strongly from one of the extreme outside positions (17) and worked his way over to join his stablemate at the first turn. As the field moved into the backstretch, the favored Unconscious was perfectly placed behind the leaders. Jockey Gustavo Avila had Canonero II near the back of the pack, wide and out of trouble. Going into the far turn the two Calumets were still in the lead, but now Jockey Laffit Pincay let out a little throttle with Unconscious, and as the colt moved up to challenge, his owner, Arthur Seeligson, said, with understandable optimism, "We've got it now."
But Avila and Canonero II had uncorked a wild, surging run on the far outside and in a quarter of a mile moved from 17th place to fourth. The horses they passed were tiring and jamming up, but Canonero II kept his own drive going. Jim French finally got through the mob to run gamely to the wire but there was no way he and Jockey Angel Cordero were going to catch the Venezuelan. Nearly four lengths behind the winner, Jim French was two lengths ahead of third-place Bold Reason, who belatedly found room to poke his neck ahead of Eastern Fleet. Unconscious faded to fifth, while the early pacesetter, Bold and Able, staggered in eighth.
Canonero II's winning time of 2:03[1/5] was a lot better than his earlier mile-and-a-quarter achievement in Caracas, but it was the equivalent of 16 lengths off Northern Dancer's Derby record of 2:00 flat. While the winner appeared to be running away from the field, his final quarter, a leisurely 26[2/5] seconds, indicates that the other horses were coming back to him in a startlingly cooperative way.
But who cares if he is not the best of all Derby winners? He's still the pride of Venezuela, a South American kid who came north to beat the yanqui at his own game. In Caracas on Sunday the news of the electrifying victory drove the continuing battles between students and police from the headlines for the first time in 10 days, and the funeral of a student killed during May Day rioting went off quietly. No one apparently was interested in using it as an excuse for a political showdown. The President of Venezuela sent a cablegram to Avila saying, in part, "The great victory will stimulate Venezuela's progress in all its efforts."
Canonero II is registered in the name of Edgar Caibett, but Caibett's father-in-law, Pedro Baptista, is said to be the power behind the reins. Although Canonero won no major races in Venezuela, Baptista thought he was promising, and with the long-distance phone help of Pimlico's General Manager Chick Lang nominated him to the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont.
Neither Baptista nor Caibett came to the U.S. for the race; they were represented here by Baptista's 18-year-old son. In Caracas Baptista said he was offered the equivalent of half a million dollars for the horse 10 minutes after the Derby was over. Extravagant, perhaps, but perfectly in fitting with Derby Day 1971. Canonero II's winning purse was $145,500, richest in Derby history. The crowd of 123,284 was the largest ever to see a horse race in the U.S., and it wagered $2,648,139 on the Derby, the most ever bet on a single race at a track anywhere. In New York City, where off-track betting on the Derby became epidemic, more than $1 million came in. Because Canonero II was a field horse at Louisville, bargain hunters who liked the idea of getting six horses for the price of one beat his odds down to less than 9 to 1, and the payoff for $2 was thus a modest $19.40. But in New York, where each horse was a separate betting interest, Canonero II paid a more fitting $59, although his near 30-to-1 odds still seemed surprisingly low.
At the track's party for the winner, the exuberant Latin personalities of Pedro Baptista Jr. and the others of his group were much in evidence, although English was sparse and interpreters at a premium. Everyone wanted to know everything there was to know about the horse, and the many Spanish-speaking jockeys present were interviewed as they have seldom been before. Were they happy to see a fellow Latin jockey win? "Not particularly," said Laffit Pincay. "The only Latin jockey I wanted to see win was me."
Canonero's trainer, 31-year-old Juan Arias, was more diplomatic. Asked if he had his horse on some special diet, Arias replied graciously, "The best diet for him was being able to come back home to race in his native Kentucky."
Viva Arias! Viva Venezuela! Viva Canonero II!