The first Triple Crown race of the year, that one in Louisville a couple of weeks ago, was wishfully regarded by most horsemen as a joke. Twenty 3-year-olds thrashing around Churchill Downs, the better ones stumbling over one another on the inside while some lucky field horse named Canonero II caught up with them in the stretch to win in slowpoke time, leaving thousands of sour-grapes losers moaning at the absurdity of the scene and openly suggesting that the injured Hoist The Flag, cast and all, could have whipped the whole bloody lot. That was the Establishment version. The Kentucky Derby-winning usurper from Caracas would get his comeuppance at the Preakness, was the word. If miraculously he did the same thing all over again against a smaller field—including some colts he had not faced in Louisville—then, and only then, would it be time to sit up and take notice.
The tendency to dismiss the Venezuelan horse as a freak vanished when Preakness week at Baltimore's Pimlico racecourse became Canonero fiesta time, and almost every newsworthy incident in the days before last Saturday's 96th running of the mile-and-[3/16]ths classic centered around Canonero and his emotional entourage. As the caravan of horsemen moved from Louisville to Baltimore, Canonero's detractors snickered. The change in altitude, they predicted, would catch up with him. Speed horses, they continued, would have an advantage in the Preakness, and at its shorter distance a come-from-behind plodder like Canonero would never be able to make it in time. Never mind, replied the Venezuelans, behind confident Latino smiles. "They laughed at us in Louisville," said Trainer Juan Arias, "and they are laughing at us in Baltimore. But at Preakness time it is we who will be laughing at the whole racing world."
Yet nothing appeared to be in Canonero's favor. Again he had to make a long van ride. He bumped his head and cut himself. He ran a slight temperature. A week before the Preakness he refused to eat his evening meal, and it turned out he had been cutting his tongue on his teeth. A vet was called and two baby teeth were extracted. An important training work had to be delayed a day or two, and when it did come off it broke watches going backwards: five furlongs in a terribly slow 1:06, galloping out six furlongs in 1:22, clockings which would have led most trainers to feel that they should skip the Preakness and maybe even Turnip Patch Downs and take a shot at Bangkok or New Delhi.
The sharpness of the Pimlico turns, Arias conceded, "will make it more difficult for Canonero because he is a large horse with a long stride, but we are not bothered or disturbed." So undisturbed and so confident were the Canonero people that 24 hours before the Preakness they schooled the son of Pretendre (who was picked up for the pocket-money price of $1,200 out of a Keeneland fall sale) not only in the paddock but also in the winner's circle, "just so he would get accustomed to the noise of the crowd and the sight of the cameras."
Most rival trainers and racing writers thought little of the Derby winner's chances in the Preakness, but outspoken Johnny Campo, trainer of Jim French (the People's Choice, with Canonero), put things in proper perspective. After telling the press that the race would be between his colt and Executioner, Campo added, "Not all horses like to work, and not all trainers like to work their horses fast. If Canonero wins the Preakness, it means he's the best horse, that's all."
And that's what he was at Pimlico last Saturday—the best horse. A heavy sentimental favorite, Canonero wrote an astonishing chapter in Preakness history. Not only did he startle everyone in the crowd of 47,211 by changing his running strategy under the brilliant guidance of Jockey Gustavo Avila, but when he flashed home a length and a half in front of Calumet Farm's Eastern Fleet (fourth to him in the Derby), he had broken a 16-year-old track record. Nashua's victory over Saratoga in the 1955 Preakness was timed in 1:54[3/5]. In the years since, that record had been challenged by gifted runners—Bold Ruler, Tim Tarn, Carry Back, Candy Spots, Northern Dancer, Tom Rolfe, Damascus, Forward Pass and Majestic Prince, to name a few—but it remained secure until Canonero came thundering under the wire in 1:54 flat.
It always seemed probable that the 11-horse Preakness would be an exciting race. The field included the first four finishers in the Derby and had been beefed up by such non-Derby starters as Executioner, the improving Sound Off and Limit To Reason. The smaller field meant that nobody could complain about post position. It would be a true race. It was assumed that Eastern Fleet and Executioner, along with Sound Off, would be the early speed. The main contenders, Jim French and maybe Canonero, would be way back waiting to pour it on around the final turn and down the stretch. Nothing was going to be very complicated. It would be an easy race to follow from start to finish.
Moments before the start Calumet Trainer Reggie Cornell said, jokingly, of Eastern Fleet, "We're going in there swinging today." How right he was. When Eastern Fleet lurched from the gate he should have been penalized 15 yards for clipping his neighbor, Executioner, in the first stride. That was pretty much the ball game for Executioner, but Eastern Fleet was off and running and ahead of the pack as it passed the stands the first time. But who was that running just behind him? No, it couldn't be. But, yes, it was. Canonero, who had come from 18th place in the unwieldy Derby field, had switched tactics and elected to force the issue from the start. There he was, just off Eastern Fleet's flank, wheeling into the first turn and outrunning speed horse Sound Off, while the others were back about where they were supposed to be. Arias had not been as idle as his horse at Pimlico. He and Avila had paid attention when translators tipped them off: "There's a lot of speed in this race, and you have to stay close. It's your only chance."
Close was putting it mildly. As Eddie Maple swung Eastern Fleet into the backstretch he did a double take, and later confessed, "I was surprised to see the winner beside me so soon." They went all the way together, separated by only a nose as they hit the far turn. Rapid fractions were flashing on the board: 23[2/5] seconds for the first quarter, :47 for the half mile, 1:10[2/5] for six furlongs, and even before the mile time of 1:35 flicked on, the wise guys in the stands chortled, "They're killing each other off and setting it up perfectly for Jim French," who, incidentally, was dawdling along in sixth and seventh place for most of the early scrimmage.
But the amazing thing about this crazy mile in 1:35 was that the leaders weren't setting it up for anybody but themselves. Eastern Fleet finally subsided, quite reluctantly, before the astonishing finishing kick of Canonero, the colt who likes to work out in trotting-horse time. Jim French came along, as he usually does, with a late run good enough to get him third place but still 4½ lengths behind Eastern Fleet and only a nose ahead of Sound Off. Behind that 11-to-1 shot came, in order, Bold Reason, Executioner, Royal J.D., Vegas Vic, Impetuosity, Spouting Horn and the disappointing Limit To Reason.
And now Canonero goes to New York's Belmont Stakes in June, at last recognized as a potent and legitimate contender for the Triple Crown. If he succeeds, he will be the first to do so since Citation in 1948. His people, from Owner Pedro Baptista, Trainer Arias and Jockey Avila down to their growing guest list of Venezuelan friends and diplomats, changed in a few frantic moments last week from objects of buffoonery to respected horsemen. It was a well-deserved transition. Avila, whose mother and his other fans call him The Monster because he wins important "clàsicos" in Caracas that he is not expected to, is an accomplished reinsman reminiscent of Britain's Lester Piggott; his backside points skyward during the early running of his races. In the Derby, he said, he had hit Canonero only twice. In the Preakness, the winner was hit more frequently, but Avila said the horse finished strong. "Going to the front is not my usual style. I like to come from behind, as we did in Kentucky. But the horse won the race, I didn't. This is a great one."
Arias, unlike Avila, was almost as unknown in his own country before the Derby as was Canonero in the U.S., but even after the Preakness he could not hide his resentment at his North American reception. "They made me feel like I was at the Derby to be a clown," the trainer complained. "They made fun of us at parties. There have been times when I wanted to tell the press to go to the devil, but I contained myself. Now I can do like your Campo and go 'bla, bla, bla!' Here in the United States the trainers think they know everything and that we trainers from other parts are supposed to be here to learn. I have shown these people a few things about training. In the U.S., for instance, everyone trains by the stopwatch. Speed is the big thing. They train so much for speed that the horses get out there and crash into each other. But the stopwatch is a relative thing. In Venezuela I take every horse individually and train it according to its needs and to the requirements of the race."
The requirements of the race at Pimlico last week were demanding and were splendidly met, and Arias, who only once has been in the top 10 trainers in his own country, will go home now to be met by his fellow trainers, who, by tradition, will cut off his tie and parade him through the streets of Caracas. Avila, who got 12 hours of sleep before the Preakness and predicted victory all along after noticing that Canonero was calmer than he ever had been in Caracas, said, after 17 years as a jockey and winning both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, "I have nothing more. Everything else now is anticlimactic. My only challenge is to maintain what I have accomplished."
The next challenge for Canonero II, Avila and Arias is the mile and a half at Belmont Park on the afternoon of June 5. Bring your Venezuelan flag. It may be the In thing at Belmont this year.