He is a big colt of copper hue, bred in Kentucky, developed in Venezuela and destined for Valhalla—maybe. Already he has won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, become the darling of America's racing fans and established himself as the biggest hero in Venezuela since Simón Bolívar. Now he is only a mile and a half away—the Belmont Stakes' mile and a half—from winning the Triple Crown, a feat no thoroughbred has achieved since Citation.
Seldom has a horse story so enchanted the American public, or offered such enchanting elements. Canonero, the colt who was first sold for $1,200 and is now reportedly worth $5 million, has become an instant celebrity, and so has an astonishing trio of Venezuelans who are responsible for the achievements of their unlikely animal. The three—owner, trainer and jockey—speak no English, but they have brought to U.S. racing a word the turf Establishment won't soon forget: "VIVA!"
Nobody better understands the phenomenon of Canonero than Juan Arias, the colt's young trainer. "He is a horse of destiny," says Arias, a Latin romantic. "He is the champion of all the people—black and white, rich and poor, American and Venezuelan, everyone."
That Canonero will take the Triple Crown, last won in 1948, now seems likely enough. As Arias puts it, "All we have to worry about next week is a horse we haven't seen. If we run against the same horses we beat in the first two races, Canonero will win even more easily." And that being the case, it should be a relief to some of this country's stuffier horsemen to learn that the men behind Canonero are sound, experienced racing figures by anybody's standards.
May 30, 1971
"I have a right to be taken seriously, and so do my horse and my jockey and my people," says Arias, whose pride and dignity were offended by the belittling attitude taken by much of the U.S. press and many racing professionals, even after the Derby. "They say we are clowns. They say we are Indians because my horse gallops slowly, sometimes without a saddle. They come to look at my horse but turn away and wrinkle up their noses. Now I no longer have to justify myself. What can they say now?"
Canonero was bred in Kentucky by Edward Benjamin. His sire, Pretendre, was beaten by a neck by Charlottown in the 1966 Epsom Derby, and his dam, Dixieland II, was a winner at 3. The breeding is not all that bad, but he has a crooked leg and Luis Navas, a Venezuelan agent, was able to pick him up for only $1,200 at the 1969 Keeneland Fall Sales. Navas shipped the colt straightaway to Venezuela and just as quickly sold him to Pedro Baptista for 26,000 bolivars, which is about $6,000.
Baptista, 44, is the owner of Croma T, C/A (Chrome Everything), a factory in Caracas that produces a wide assortment of chrome products and furniture, including beds for the army. The business, started by Baptista's grandfather in 1901, was grossing $25,000 a year when Pedro went to work there in 1942. Now it does $1.5 million annually, and is the largest industry of its kind in Venezuela. "I used to work 18 hours a day," says Baptista. "Now I only work eight or 10."
One of the wealthiest men in Caracas, Baptista lives in a Castillo once owned by the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who was deposed in 1958. Among the appointments of Baptista's home is his own private discothéque in the basement. A stumpy, swarthy man with a scar on his nose and few teeth, Baptista is considered something of an eccentric in Venezuela. "You will see him in downtown Caracas and he looks like a bum," says a friend. "No tie, no teeth, unshaven, baggy suit. But he probably has thousands of bolivars in his pocket."
Baptista has owned horses since 1950, and at its peak his stable included more than 50 head, but now he races only about six. His introduction to ownership was hardly encouraging. "I bought nine horses," he says, "and none was a winner. That made me superstitious, so now I never race a horse in my own name." In Caracas he uses two hybrid names for his stable—Viglayape and Glalu, both made up from combinations of the first letters in his family's surnames. In the U.S. he has raced Canonero in the name of his son-in-law, Edgar Caibett, but Caibett not only owns no part of Canonero, he has never been present when the horse has run. "I am the sole owner," says Baptista.
After buying the colt from Navas, the first thing Baptista did was name him Canonero. A canonero is a group of people singing, accompanied by a small four-string guitar, a gourd and a regular guitar. At the Plaza de Bolívar in Caracas, the corner where the musicians gather is called el rincón canonero and this is where Baptista got the name. The colt has been listed as Canonero II on U.S. racing programs because there was an earlier Canonero here.
When Baptista first turned over Canonero to Arias, the colt looked as if he would be lucky to develop into a decent claimer, hardly a Triple Crown candidate. He was small, he had a split right hoof and he had worms. After treatment the hoof took three months to heal, but the worms were a more difficult problem. "We had to clean out his stomach every 30 days," recalls Baptista, "and I had to get him special food, like seaweed from Australia."
Though Canonero developed into a strong colt, Baptista still did not think he was much of a runner. He was so unimpressed, in fact, that when the colt finally went to the races the jockey that Baptista hired was one J. E. Contreras, a hapless rider who had hardly won any races. "He was so bad," says a friend of Baptista, "that the other jockeys called him "Willie Shoemaker' to make fun of him." But Canonero, with Contreras up, breezed home by 6½ lengths in his first race, a six-furlong handicap on August 8, 1970 at La Rinconada.
Nobody was more pleased than Arias. Born on a farm in Venezuela's central plains, Arias, now 32, grew up in poverty. His father disappeared when Juan was four and two years later he moved with his mother to Caracas. When his mother gave him money to go to the movies or an amusement park Arias would sneak off to the racetrack to visit the horses and sweep out the stalls for free. Later, when he was unable to become a pilot in Dictator Jiménez' air force, he turned to horses and racing. From 1955 through 1959 he was a student in the government's school for horse trainers. "The idea was to produce some Venezuelan professionals," says Arias. "At the time the top trainers in the country were from England, Mexico, Peru and other countries." Arias received his training license on July 4, 1959 and embarked on a career that, for eight years, was distinguished by two characteristics: failure and defeat.
"The only horses that I had I got by force, and they were dogs," he says. "It was terrible. I slept in the barns and I didn't know where my next meal was coming from. Most of my classmates quit training pretty soon, and they advised me to quit, too. I guess the only reason I kept going was because I was young and single.
"I remember once a fellow around the track came up to me and said, 'You're not good for anything. Where did you get your diploma from? Out of a box of talcum powder?' I looked at him and I said, 'First of all, I don't depend on you for food. Second, it doesn't make any difference where I got my diploma. And third, someday I will prove that I am a better trainer than anybody.' "
Arias' fortunes began to change in 1967, when a mutual friend introduced him to Baptista. At the time Baptista's stable was in a slump. He put 16 horses in Arias" hands and promised him a three-month trial. The stable won 700,000 bolivars during that time, and soon Arias was training the entire Baptista string. His biggest achievement prior to the Derby came in the 1968 Polla de Potrancas (Prize of the Fillies) when his horses ran 1-2-3 and won a total of $115,000. "That was my greatest thrill in racing," says Baptista, "and you should have seen Arias. He was so loco that I had to get a doctor for him."
A short man with gray flecks in his black hair and smooth skin the color of cocoa, Arias is the liveliest, most visible member of Canonero's party. When he is not working with horses, he likes to drink Scotch, dance the Joropo, swim in the ocean and socialize. He is something of a philosopher about the last.
"It is a natural tendency for me to throw flowers to the women," he says. "It is the oldest race in the world—women after men, and men after women. I am jealous about my women and I am jealous about my horses—nothing else. I find that you must treat horses like women, speaking softly to them and knowing when to give them love pats.
"When I find that I am flirting with a married woman, I apologize to her husband and tell him something like, 'May God take care of her and conserve her for you.' And if I find myself with an older lady, I tell her she has the sparkle in her eye of a 15-year-old."
Arias is more secretive about his horse training methods, but often hints that his ways are different, and special, and that someday he will write a book about them. "I can learn from the American trainers," he says, "but I can also teach them some things."
One tactic Arias admits to is talking to Canonero before a race to psych him up. "Juan believes that his horses can understand him and help him discover what to do," says a Venezuelan friend. "Do you remember the day before the Preakness, when Juan paraded Canonero in the winner's circle? Many people said it was to familiarize Canonero with the crowd and the track. That is baloney. Juan was trying to use psychology on the horse, to show him where he wanted him to go."
After Canonero's first win as a 2-year-old, Baptista and Arias shipped him to Del Mar in California, where he was third and fifth in two starts. "We thought that an American horse should race in America," said Arias. "Mr. Baptista told me on the plane to California that if Canonero won at Del Mar, or if he ran well, he wanted to point him for the Kentucky Derby."
Gustavo Avila, the bushy-browed, taciturn jockey who rode Canonero in the Derby and Preakness, joined the team on March 7 of this year, when he guided the colt to a 2½-length victory in a mile-and-a-quarter race at La Rinconada. The time was slow—2:08[2/5]—but it demonstrated the stamina that has stood the colt in good stead in his two Triple Crown races.
Avila, 31, is considered the premier jockey in Venezuela, or, as Arias puts it, "He is the ace of spades, the ace of jockeys, the ace of men." He did not get on a horse until he was 13 when, on the advice of some school friends, he entered a school for jockeys. "I was terrible," Avila says now, breaking into a rare grin. "In fact, they kicked me out of school several times because I kept falling off."
In Venezuela, Avila is known as "El Monstruo"—the Monster—a nickname of respect among the chalk players who have watched him boot home many long shots. Over his 17-year career Avila has won more than 1,250 races, including five victories in the most important race in Venezuela—the Clàsico Simón Bolívar. He is especially proud of his 1962 record: he won more times (95) than he finished out of the money (78). These totals may seem low by American and European standards, but there is racing only on Saturdays and Sundays in Venezuela. Avila estimates his annual earnings at between $50,000 and $60,000, a figure so high that he and Arias can afford to tease each other about their alleged bolivar-pinching.
One night shortly after the Preakness, the teasing began while they were sitting in a bar drinking Scotch.
Arias: "I'm going to change my money into $5 bills and fill a room full. I will need a shovel."
Avila: "Bah, Arias is too tight. He hasn't even bought me a Coca-Cola to toast Canonero."
Arias: "Avila's hobby is collecting bolivars. He has about five or six trunks full. Every day he drags them out into his yard and he takes the money out to sun. He has bulldogs and German shepherds walking around him in circles for protection. Then he gets his rakes and shovels and puts the money back in the trunks. And besides, Avila, I don't toast anybody with Coca-Cola."
After his initial victory with Canonero, Avila rode the colt twice more, finishing third and first. But then he was replaced by R.D. Guzmàn. The theory, according to Arias, was that Avila was too busy to give Canonero more than perfunctory attention. Guzmàn won his first race aboard Canonero, but on April 10, in the colt's last outing before the Derby, Guzmàn and Canonero were an indifferent third in a 1‚⅛-mile handicap. At this point Baptista began to have misgivings about sending Canonero to Louisville. "We couldn't figure it out," says Arias. "He moved well and he was in good shape. We finally decided it must have been the jockey's fault."
Soon Baptista was on the phone to Avila.
"Gustavo, you are rich and famous now," he remembers saying, "but do you want to be more rich and famous? If so, I will let you ride Canonero in the Kentucky Derby."
Venezuelan racing men thought Baptista was mad to even dream about winning the Derby. "They said Canonero would finish last at Churchill Downs," he recalls. "They said Avila would lose by 10 lengths. They said I was throwing my money away. But I knew what I was doing and that everybody else was crazy."
Nevertheless, Baptista did not go to Louisville himself. Pressing business commitments, he said. And the colt was kept in Caracas until only eight days before the Derby because Baptista "wanted to keep him where I could see him as long as possible." There were unexpected delays in shipping when blood test reports did not come on time from Washington, and then two days of quarantine—none of which bothered the colt as much as his traveling companions—chickens and ducks—on the plane to Miami. "He didn't like the birds," says Baptista, "so we sent him from Miami to Louisville by truck."
Immediately after the Derby one of Baptista's friends in Miami called the owner to tell him the news. "That's a sick joke," said Baptista, angrily slamming down the receiver. Seconds later the friend called back to tell him it was the truth. Baptista began to cry and could not talk. While Baptista was crying, his 74-year-old father came in and asked, "What's happening?" Told the news, he too began to cry. Then father and son went outside, got in a car and drove to the grave of Baptista's mother, where they cried some more.
"They wished that she could be with them," said Luis Efren Ruiz, a close friend of Baptista. "Then Don Pedro promised the Virgin Mary that he would build a grotto for his garden with a golden Virgin inside. That is already done."
At the Preakness, Baptista showed up with a lively party of 10 friends, and he remained in Baltimore until the Thursday after the race. During that time he could usually be found in the hotel coffee shop, chain-smoking and mulling over Canonero's future. On Monday, he said, a syndicate of U.S. horsemen offered $5 million for the colt. On Wednesday the president of Venezuela called to say that his government would match the offer. "There would be a revolution," said Victor Sciloam, who is Baptista's accountant and friend. "What we need in Venezuela are houses, not horses."
No matter—Baptista was enjoying the notoriety. "It is amazing to me," he said, "that a black man [Arias] and two Indians [Baptista and Avila] could come here and smash 200 years of tradition in racing. And now, God willing, Canonero also will win the Belmont and then—ay, yi—what a fiesta we will have in Venezuela!"
That should be something to see, judging by what has already happened. When Avila returned to Caracas on the weekend between the Derby and the Preakness, he was carried through the streets. (He also managed to win three races, including one aboard Pretendido, a half-brother on the sire's side to Canonero.) On Preakness afternoon racing was suspended at La Rinconada so the fans could watch Canonero on 100 TV sets set up for the occasion. When Canonero crossed the finish line, the fans were so delirious that they broke all the TV screens.
There is much glory for all concerned in Canonero's achievements, but the man whose life would seem to be changed the most is Arias. Before the Derby he was so little known that a Caracas newspaper could find only one old picture of him in its files. "Now even his fellow trainers will be waiting to cut off his necktie and parade him through the streets," says a friend.
"Ah yes, it is nice to think about," said Arias one afternoon last week. Then he laughed. "You know, in my country, my friends know me as "Juan Bimba.' That means a man of the people, not an aristocrat. When I go back, I will still be Juan Bimba. I will still be a man of the people."
To a lot more people, though.