For the first time this year New York, the state with the most racing (396 days), also managed to have the best. At Belmont Park on Memorial Day the $100,000 Metropolitan Handicap drew a million-dollar field (actually the starters had won $2.4 million) of older horses. And two days later in the $50,000 Withers, classic colts like Key to the Mint and No Le Hace went all out in their final prep for next Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
Both the Metropolitan and the Withers are raced over a mile—a distance that many trainers consider the toughest for a horse to tackle. It usually is a stirring contest from flag fall to finish, with the held being allowed no breather at any point. The distance is a little long for a sprinter, yet often too short for the true classicist. It takes a good racehorse to win at something other than his specialty when he is toting a heavy weight and the competition is of high caliber. Last week's victors—Executioner in the Metropolitan and Key to the Mint in the Withers—demonstrated their quality.
Nearly 60,000, the largest crowd by far of the New York season, turned out to see the Metropolitan, though few came especially to see Executioner do his thing. Despite a record of four wins in six starts this year, the son of The Axe went oft' at 16 to 1. The 3-to-2 favorite in the race was Bold Reasoning, who seemed back at his best after a leg injury that took nine months to heal. The main attraction, however, was Canonero II, the storybook stallion of the 1971 Triple Crown races. After finishing a gallant fourth in the Belmont, losing by only 4½ lengths despite lameness, he had been given nearly a year of R & R. Now he was fit again. But Canonero, bet down to 3-to-1 second choice, could finish no better than eighth in the Metropolitan, beaten some 10 lengths.
Despite this less than heroic performance, the romance of Canonero endures. It is a lovely tale, showing a sentimental side of racing seldom seen anymore.
Following his amazing wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the Canonero fan club swelled to Raquel Welch proportions, but the colt's admirers before then were few, just a handful of Venezuelans and one American. This was Robert J. Kleberg, owner of the King Ranch.
On Derby Day 1971, as the 20-horse field was being saddled in the Churchill Downs paddock, Kleberg, who owned two previous Derby winners (Assault in 1946 and Middleground in 1950), was standing in the walking ring scrutinizing the entries. He is an expert judge of livestock of all kinds, as well he might be, owning hundreds of thousands of steers, quarter horses and thoroughbreds. After 10 minutes of careful observation, Kleberg said, "That No. 15 is just about the best-looking colt I ever saw. Who is he, anyway?" Half an hour later No. 15 led the field under the wire, and, as cries of "Viva Canoncro" swept through the rambling Downs, Bob Kleberg's eyes were twinkling.
Two weeks later came the colt's incredible track-record performance in the Preakness. And then, before he had a fair opportunity to win the Belmont and the Triple Crown, the dream came to an end. Canonero suffered from thrush (a virulent sort of athlete's foot), skin disease and hock trouble in the days preceding the Belmont. That he finished fourth instead of chucking it at the head of the long Belmont stretch is tribute to his courage.
While his Venezuela handlers squabbled among themselves about Canonero's fitness to appear in that Belmont, Bob Kleberg was quietly moving to buy the horse. "I want that colt," he declared determinedly. And he got him for $1.5 million—a price he agreed to before the Belmont and one he never tried to lower after it.
Turned over to Kleberg's trainer. Buddy Hirsch, Canonero continued to be plagued by ailments. "His right hock tilled the day after Mr. Kleberg bought him," Hirsch explained recently. "When the hock cleared up, an ankle puffed up, and although he was never really lame, the leg was hot. We worked on him all winter at Santa Anita and had to postpone one start after another."
At last on May 20 Canoncro made it back to the races. He was beaten nearly five lengths that day, finishing second in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap. But, as Buddy Hirsch suspected he might, Canonero was favoring his right hind when he pulled up and came back to the barn somewhat "run down." Pounding on the track surface, he had scraped open a wound on the back of his ankle. In last week's Metropolitan, Canonero ran down on the same right hind leg and on his left fore as well, which will send him to the sidelines once more. Kleberg trained his expert eye on his prize colt after the Metropolitan defeat and estimated that the son of Pretendre had probably lost 100 pounds from his usual 1,200-pound weight. "I still believe I've never seen a better-looking horse," the owner said. "I'd like to win one good race with him—say the Suburban on July 22—and then syndicate him for stud duty."
When Canoncro's racing days are over, he will probably stand at A. B. (Bull) Hancock's Claiborne farm in Paris, Ky., and the asking price will be $50,000 a share, which would put his total value at $1,600,000. "It would be hard to get that for him right now," says Hancock realistically. "His pedigree is against him. It would help if he'd won in New York during his career. It would help tremendously if he won the Suburban, and it would be a lot easier if he'd won the 1971 Belmont Stakes instead of the Preakness. But we'll do our best."
With or without Canonero the ranks of the older horses are filled with talent. In or close to New York, in addition to Executioner and Bold Reasoning, are Paul Mellon's Run the Gantlet and Farewell Party, John Galbreath's His Majesty and Good Counsel, and a host of others including West Coast Scout, Loud. Droll Role, Autobiography and Peace Corps. This Eastern Establishment may expect stiff competition when and if it comes up against the three leading horses of the West: Cougar, Unconscious and Triple Bend. A year ago it was California-raced Ack Ack who swept to Horse of the Year honors. Cougar might repeat the act in 1972.
Any older horse with championship aspirations probably will have to beat the 1972 Belmont Stakes winner in the autumn weight-for-age events. This, as viewed from here, means meeting either Riva Ridge or Key to the Mint. No matter who runs against them in the demanding mile-and-a-half Belmont—and that includes No Le Hace, Upper Case, Zulu Tom. Big Spruce, Smiling Jack, Ruritania or Second Bar—it looks to be a two-horse race.
These cofavorites found the sloppy track at Pimlico a handy excuse for finishing behind Bee Bee Bee in the Preakness. If Belmont Day provides a fast racing surface, and it usually does, there is little to choose between the pair. A strong case may be made for Riva Ridge; he has, after all, already won the Kentucky Derby and has been the better and more consistent of the two colts for nearly a season and a half. The major plus for Key to the Mint is that he has been pointing for the Belmont since the day he was foaled. He won the Withers in near-record time (1:34[4/5]). Furthermore, his trainer, Elliott Burch, has started only three horses in the Belmont Stakes. They were Sword Dancer, Quadrangle and Arts and Letters. All three won.