Before he was beaten back to fourth place, nearly 4½ lengths behind Peter Kissel's 35-to-1 shot Pass Catcher, the hallowed Belmont Stakes belonged to the one and only Canonero II. He and his flamboyant Venezuelan entourage made the race—and the day. With their tricolored flags, their endurance at singing and dancing and their display of sportsmanship after watching the loved one lose, the South Americans proved a credit to their nation and to themselves.
The Belmont used to be referred to as New York racing's best kept secret—an event run off in early June for the benefit of the track's officers and a few close friends and relatives. Now, in the hands of the New York Racing Association's promotion-wise chairman of the board, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the third leg of the Triple Crown finally has gotten through to the U.S. public in the same big-league way as the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Canonero, of course, was the key, attracting a huge throng (81,036) that bet just under $7 million on the nine-race program last Saturday afternoon, plunging for $1,555,368 on the Belmont alone. Another $1,176,898 was sent through the wickets in New York's first experiment in off-track betting on a home-town flat race, and with so much attention focused on Canonero after his stunning victories in the Derby and the Preakness the nation's bookies were busy, too, handling bets on one of the most attractive racing spectacles in years. But then, to spoil it for those who had made him a 3-to-5 favorite to become the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948, Canonero could not get the job done.
The Venezuelan's defeat came as a thundering shock. In five weeks the bay colt had changed from an unknown who had been 500 to 1 in Caliente's Derby Winter Book to an equine version of "the people's cherce," a sort of Carry Back, Kelso and Silky Sullivan rolled into one, an animal admired both for his own singular achievements and for his colorful crew of followers who endeared themselves to U.S. fans by their confidence in the colt and their cheerful, if seemingly weird, way of going about their work. "Their training seems unorthodox to us," said Jimmy Jones, the last Triple Crown trainer, "but maybe they've got an unorthodox horse on their hands."
June 13, 1971
One thing the Venezuelan team of Owner Pedro Baptista, Trainer Juan Arias and Jockey Gustavo Avila did not have on their hands was a colt who was ready for the race. The mile and a half of the Belmont over a deep track requires, above all else, that a horse be fit. And often it is the fresh horse who has skipped the grind in Louisville and Baltimore who is apt to perform best in this first real distance test for 3-year-olds. Despite all attempts to play down Canonero's various ailments, insiders knew (SI, June 7) that the colt was not ready for the test ahead. A week before the race he had a skin rash, an athlete's-foot-type infection and "burned" heels. He missed two vital days of exercise and gained 50 unwelcome pounds. By race day very few of the old professionals shared the public's view that nothing could stop this colt who could come from way off the pace, as he did in the Derby, or make it himself, as he did in the Preakness, and do absolutely nothing wrong. While the public was lulled with denials that anything was wrong with Canonero, the smart money was looking around for a fresh horse.
Trainers confirmed the skepticism with an unusual number of challengers. The 13 starters—only once has the Belmont had a larger field—included some attractive prospects. There was Dr. Fager's brother, Highbinder. And last year's Futurity winner, Salem. And a grandson of Ribot named Purse Finder. And a bay colt by All Hands called Pass Catcher, who had been nursed along for Kissel by Trainer Eddie Yowell. Yowell had been this Belmont route before. In 1965 he took aim on it with Mrs. Ben Cohen's Hail to All. Five days before the Belmont he "prepped" the colt in the mile-and-an-eighth Jersey Derby and won it. He also won the Belmont. Last week, again five days before the Belmont, he ran Pass Catcher in the Jersey Derby, and his half-length loss to Bold Reasoning was convincing.
"It's funny how these things work," noted Kissel after the Belmont. "I've only got two 3-year-olds in training, and both of them aren't too bad. Executioner won the Flamingo for us. Then he popped an ankle at the start of the Preakness and will be out of training until this fall. We ran Pass Catcher seven times a year ago, and after he finished second in the Hopeful both Eddie and I started thinking he might be the better of the two. But then we found he had a hairline fracture of the right knee, and we couldn't get him back to the races until the end of March. There was no way he could be ready for the Derby or Preakness. I had hoped to run Pass Catcher in the Jersey Derby and Executioner in the Belmont, and with any luck win with them both. Then, with Executioner out, I thought last week, 'Oh, what the hell, Pass Catcher is the only other 3-year-old I have, so we might as well run him in the Belmont.' "
Only he nearly didn't run. When Eddie Yowell arrived at his barn on the morning of Belmont Day he discovered that Pass Catcher had rapped himself somehow during the night and that his right hind leg was starting to fill. Upon the advice of track veterinarian Dr. Manuel Gilman, Yowell elected to go for broke anyway.
As for Canonero, he was sound enough on Belmont Day, though not in peak racing condition. With Venezuelan flags fluttering, drums beating and voices ringing out of one of the most hyped-up audiences ever to watch a horse race, the battle lines were drawn. Would the Belmont go to an upstart newcomer? Or to one of the familiar camp followers like Jim French, Bold Reason or Twist The Axe? Or would it become a day for the record books and for Canonero? Wishfully anticipating that Canonero would be ready when he went postward, the sentimental crowd made him the odds-on favorite. Sadly, the betting was wrong.
It was wrong because the public was not officially informed—until after the race—that Canonero was, in racing terminology, "short" to run a mile and a half. As veterinarian Dr. William O. Reed noted the morning after the Belmont, when Canonero was still showing signs of extreme fatigue, "The horse was in perfect physical condition on Belmont Day and his injuries were as minor as was stated to the press. But because of the two-day interruption in training he was only 75% prepared to run a mile and a half. He was not in a position to do himself any physical harm. But, as I told his handlers, they were gambling that the horse could win the race without sufficient conditioning. They had a lot to gain and—after all—the horse only missed by four lengths." It is most regrettable the general public was not made privy to this explicit information before it bet more than $1 million on Canonero.
When the race began, Avila, as he had done in the Preakness, elected either to go with the pace deliberately or let Canonero run there if he wanted to. Eddie Belmonte on Twist The Axe went right after him, and so did Walter Blum on Pass Catcher. Bold Reason was right up there, followed by Salem. Jim French was hanging back in seventh place, and none of the others really got in the act at all. After Canonero had cut out fractions of 1:12[2/5] for the first six furlongs and 1:37 for the mile, it became apparent that Avila (or Canonero) had been overly ambitious. This was not a mile and [3/16]ths, like the Preakness, and the colt was tiring. Blum, meanwhile, had given Pass Catcher a bit of a breather on the backstretch. Midway around the final turn he said, "I really got into him, and he took off. At the quarter pole I took the lead from Canonero and opened up five lengths. I lost my whip in the stretch, but I knew we were home free." Jim French, old reliable that he is, charged through on the inside to be a fast-closing second, less than a length away from the winner, while Bold Reason came up to edge a dead-tired Canonero (No. 8, see cover) by a neck for third.
At the postrace party almost the first person to reach Kissel's side was Canonero's owner. "Congratulations," Pedro Baptista said warmly. "Thank you," replied Kissel, "but it is you who should be congratulated. You have a wonderful horse. I feel awful about Canonero and I am sorry for you, and I genuinely feel it's a shame to break up a Triple Crown. Believe me."
Even in defeat Canonero stole much of the limelight. Baptista continued to ponder offers to buy or lease his horse, though he was not too busy to console Trainer Arias. "Be cheerful!" he said. "We have become rich and famous, the horse is all right and the future is ahead of us."
Arias finally admitted that Canonero was only 75% of himself going to the gate, and that there had been reason to take him out of the race. "If I had to do it again I probably would not run him," he said, "but we felt we owed him the chance to consecrate himself in racing history. I still feel he is a good horse and that I trained him well. My horse ran in glory."
True enough. Canonero was beaten, yes, but far from disgraced. The Venezuelans had courage before the race and they had grace in defeat afterward. The only jarring note was that the gullible betting public was misled. But if he never runs in this country again, and no matter what he does for the rest of his career, Canonero brought a bright, cheerful light into U.S. racing that can never be fully extinguished.