For five glorious weeks in the spring of 1971 – 50 years ago now – an unlikely trio of men from Venezuela chased the Triple Crown and almost won it with a horse hardly anyone had heard of on Kentucky Derby Day.
For the late Pedro Baptista Sr., the owner of Cañonero II; Juan Arias, who trained the colt; and Gustavo Avila, who rode him, the Triple Crown run was a thrill for the ages, made even sweeter because it almost didn’t happen.
Given all the things that could have gone wrong – and the things that eventually did – it was a miracle the bold plan succeeded as well as it did.
• • •
A day in mid-February, with the deadline for nominations to the 1971 Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes approaching, Charles J. Lang Jr.’s lunch was interrupted by a bizarre telephone call. A tireless promoter for Pimlico and the Preakness, “Chick” Lang was in Miami trying to drum up horses for the race. On the other end of the line was a stranger, a friend of Baptista’s, who had tracked down Lang. He said that he wanted to nominate a horse for the Triple Crown.
Lang listened for a minute or two and then decided that it was either a crank call or maybe just a joke concocted by one of his friends. The caller wasn’t sure how to spell Cañonero’s name or the name of his sire (*Pretendre), Lang recalled later, and he thought that the man’s accent sounded fake. He took down the information, ended the call and crumpled the paper into a ball. He started to toss it into the trash but then thought better of it. Maybe it was legitimate after all.
Instead, Lang entered the nomination for the Preakness and passed Cañonero II’s name on to the officials taking nominations for the Derby and Belmont. The colt was one of 220 horses nominated for the Derby that year, 179 for the Preakness and 166 for the Belmont Stakes. Lang probably didn’t give the Venezuelans another thought until the first Saturday in May.
Cañonero II arrived at Churchill Downs in late April with modest credentials, no confirmed stabling arrangements and looking like anything except a Derby contender. What should have been a direct flight from Caracas to Miami was a disaster from the start, and his physical condition when he got to Kentucky showed it. The first plane developed engine trouble shortly after takeoff and returned to the airport. The replacement aircraft also developed mechanical problems, this time over the Caribbean, and was diverted to Panama. After another delay, Cañonero II finally made the trip to the United States on a cargo plane packed with livestock and crates of raucous poultry.
Things got worse in Miami. There was confusion about Cañonero II’s health papers, understandable because he arrived on U.S. soil without the necessary documentation during an outbreak of Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis. After several hours on the tarmac in the sweltering Florida sun, he was finally unloaded and taken directly to a United States Department of Agriculture quarantine facility. He languished there for four days, confined to a stall without any exercise until he was cleared for travel to Kentucky. He arrived at Churchill Downs after a 24-hour, non-stop van ride dehydrated, listless and with a dull coat. The colt had lost at least 70 pounds, probably more, during the ordeal.
Once Cañonero II settled in and the cooler spring weather in Kentucky began to agree with him, he started looking better and more fit. Arias took his time with the colt, not rushing, favoring long, slow gallops with an uncommonly large exercise rider who rode with only a saddle pad and no stirrups. Cañonero II’s few timed workouts were ridiculously slow.
In the days leading up to the Derby, the press either ignored Cañonero II and his trainer or, as was more often the case, they ridiculed him mercilessly. Arias was cast as likable and laughable but an outsider, hopelessly out of his league with a horse who was outclassed. It didn’t help matters that Arias and the others in the Cañonero II camp spoke little English, which led to confusion and misunderstandings. When Calumet Farm trainer Reggie Cornell said that he never had seen so much “garbage” in a Derby, Arias learned of the insult, and he was infuriated. You could criticize him, he thought, but not his horse. Arias was confident that Cañonero II was where he belonged, in one of the most famous races in the world.
Pedro Baptista Jr., the owner’s son, recalled the pre-Derby experience during an interview with filmmaker Salomon Gill several years later. The Hispanic trainers, jockeys, and backstretch workers were incredibly supportive, he said, but the people at Churchill Downs were not. The Venezuelans were left out of press conferences, and party invitations arrived late if they came at all.
“Their attitude,” the younger Baptista said, “was that we were crazy and that we didn’t have any chance to win the race with Cañonero II.”
The colt was part of the six-horse mutuel field for on-track betting, where $2 to win would pay $19.40. A winning bet on Cañonero II in New York’s off-track shops, where the colt was listed individually, would pay three times as much. Track handicapper Mike Battaglia, who set the opening odds, went a step further and speculated that Cañonero II would have gone off at odds approaching 100-1 if he had been uncoupled from the field.
The critics were wrong about Cañonero II, although that wasn’t immediately obvious during the early running of the Derby.
The first time past the stands, Avila had Cañonero II far back in the crowded 20-horse field. It was where Avila wanted to be, away from the bumping and rough traffic at the front. The colt finally got his first call from the track announcer 56 seconds after the start, almost halfway through the race, when the horses were leaving the first turn. Cañonero II was so far behind that he was out of the frame as the television cameras stayed on the leaders down the backstretch.
Cañonero II didn’t get another call until the jockeys were setting their horses up for a stretch run. By then, Avila had Cañonero II moving fastest of all, eight horses wide around the final turn and gaining on the leaders with every stride. He angled Cañonero II toward the rail with a furlong to go, and the colt drew away to win by 33⁄4 lengths over Jim French. The winning time over a fast track was 2:031⁄5, well off Northern Dancer’s track record. Don Pedro didn’t attend the Derby because of financial difficulties, and Cañonero II raced in the name of his son-in-law, Edgar Caibett. The owner didn’t learn of Cañonero II’s victory until a local reporter telephoned that evening with the news. Derby Day in 1971 fell on May 1, by coincidence the same as this year, a national holiday in Venezuela with no television or radio.
Don Pedro thought it was a joke, a cruel one at that, and slammed down the telephone. Other callers finally convinced him that the dream had come true.
• • •
Winning the Kentucky Derby has its perks. Don Pedro joined Pedro Jr., Arias and Avila in Baltimore, where Cañonero II and his human connections received treatment fit for a classic winner.
Reporters and photographers who ignored Cañonero II in Louisville made daily pilgrimages to the Preakness Barn at Pimlico Race Course to track the colt’s pre-race preps, such as they were, and party invitations arrived on time. The horse’s story became well told by Preakness time. Bred in Kentucky by Edward Benjamin, the colt sold as a yearling at Keeneland for $1,200 to a Venezuelan buyer who later sold Cañonero II to Baptista as part of a package with two other horses. The bay colt won his debut at La Rinconada in his home country, made two starts at Del Mar in California, returned to Venezuela and won five of his next nine starts through April of 1971. Then came the Derby upset, and stardom.
“Cañonero II was treated with the respect and admiration that a Kentucky Derby winner deserves,” Pedro Jr. told Gill about their experience at Pimlico. “Our attitude also changed from being a team of adventurers to a team that is victorious.”
At the Alibi Breakfast, an important fixture of Preakness Week, Churchill Downs Publicity Director Raymond Johnson presented the $5,000 gold Derby trophy to Don Pedro. Johnson had a smaller replica of the trophy for Avila and an engraved gold pocket watch for Arias. The trainer also received a Medallion of Merit authorized by the Congress of Venezuela and presented in Washington, D.C., by the Venezuelan ambassador. Avila got a similar award during a ceremony in Caracas, where he went for a few days’ rest before the Preakness.
Cañonero II’s impressive come-from-behind Derby win silenced many of his critics, but not all of them.
There still were legitimate questions to be answered in the Preakness: could Arias work his magic a second time with his unorthodox training style? How would Cañonero II handle a smaller field and a shorter race over a track that seemed to favor speed? And most importantly, did Arias and his horse even belong in elite company as the trainer believed, or was Cañonero II a one-win wonder?
A hit-and-miss training schedule for Cañonero II during the week leading up to the Preakness puzzled the other trainers with horses in the race, but Arias was not concerned. He knew his horse, and Don Pedro supervised and approved the schedule. The original plan was to work Cañonero II on the Saturday before the Preakness, but Arias postponed the workout because of a sloppy track. Cañonero II then went off his feed and lost more training time when two teeth had to be extracted. A slight fever caused another delay, and the colt’s first serious workout since the Derby finally took place on Wednesday, just three days before the Preakness.
Avila worked Cañonero II 5 furlongs that morning in a pedestrian 1:06. Six other Preakness horses worked an identical distance the same day, or the day before or after, and all of them had significantly faster times. Arias called the workout a “speed test;” Daily Racing Form writer Barney Nagler called it “laughable.”
Arias might have been laughing, too, at least in private and for a different reason. Don Pedro always took an active role in Cañonero II’s training, and for the Preakness, he and Arias had decided on a dramatically different race strategy.
“It was a secret,” Pedro Jr. recalled years later. “We didn’t share the secret with anyone.”
Cañonero II went out for a relaxed gallop over a muddy track Friday, the day before the Preakness. It was the sort of unconventional training move that people were coming to expect from Arias, who remained optimistic.
Later in the day, he had Cañonero II’s groom, Juan Quintero, walk the colt to the grass course where the Preakness horses would be saddled the next afternoon. On the way back to the barn, Quintero stopped Cañonero II in the winner’s circle, and the fans cheered. Arias said that he wanted the colt to get accustomed to the “noise of the crowd and the sight of the cameras after the victory.”
The new strategy remained a secret for less than a minute after the start of the Preakness.
Calumet Farm’s Florida Derby winner Eastern Fleet was a horse that liked the lead, and jockey Eddie Maple hustled the colt to the front at the break. The early fractions were quick – a quarter-mile in :232⁄5; a half-mile in :47 – and when the horses passed the stands for the first time, Eastern Fleet was where everyone expected him to be.
The surprise was developing behind the leader. Avila was rushing Cañonero II up the outside to challenge Eastern Fleet. It was an unexpected move for a long-striding colt with a stayer’s pedigree, a colt who had won the Derby from far off the pace. The rest of the field dropped back, and after a mile, Cañonero II was in front. The time for the mile, 1:35, was 23⁄5 seconds faster than the track record for the distance set in 1923 by a horse named June Grass.
Cañonero II pulled away from Eastern Fleet in the final strides and won by 11⁄2 lengths, with Jim French a distant third. The winner’s time, 1:54, lowered Nashua’s track and stakes record by three-fifths of a second.
Cañonero II’s Preakness record stood for 13 years, until Gate Dancer won the race in 1:533⁄5. At least that’s what everyone thought at the time.
Forty years later, following a challenge to the official time for Secretariat’s Preakness, the Maryland Racing Commission determined that Cañonero II’s stakes record actually had been broken just two years later, in 1973.
Secretariat’s posted time, 1:55, had been wrong because of a malfunction in the electronic timer. After testimony from seven witnesses and a review of a side-by-side comparison of recordings from the 1973 Preakness and two other runnings of the race, the commission ruled that Secretariat’s winning time was 1:53, a stakes record that still stands.
The winning time didn’t matter in 1971. There was dancing in the streets after the Preakness in Venezuela, where Cañonero II was approaching national hero status. For the Baptistas, Arias and Avila, the Preakness was further vindication of a shared belief in their horse that never wavered.
“Venezuela was in a state of continual celebration,” Pedro Jr. recalled. “The entire United States was involved, and the media was covering Cañonero, the horse, and the story about the adventure.”
• • •
Cañonero II won the Kentucky Derby with a late charge from 18 lengths off the pace, and then two weeks later took the Preakness with an unexpected burst of speed and a front-running win in stakes-record time. With the first Triple Crown sweep since Citation in 1948 now a real possibility, the main question leading up to the Belmont Stakes was which version of the colt would show up, the stayer or the speed horse.
In the end, it didn’t matter. The physical problems and training interruptions that Cañonero II weathered before the Derby and Preakness got the better of him in the days leading up to the Belmont.
Avila sent Cañonero II to the front just as he had done in the Preakness, and for 6 furlongs, it looked as if he might steal the race. Cañonero II held off early challenges from Twist the Axe and Bold Reason, but longshot Pass Catcher caught him on the final turn. The odds-on favorite of the record crowd, Cañonero II faded to finish fourth, behind Pass Catcher, Jim French, and Bold Reason.
Recalling the Triple Crown races a half-century later, Avila said that the Belmont Stakes was a sad end to a remarkable few weeks. Despite the disappointment, however, Avila said that he considered the Belmont to be Cañonero II’s best race. He was a game and honest horse, Avila explained, and “even with his problems, he came close to winning.”
King Ranch owner Robert J. Kleberg Jr. bought Cañonero II for $1.5 million after the Belmont Stakes. Due to a seriously swollen hock that compromised his training for months, it took trainer William J. “Buddy” Hirsch almost a year to get Cañonero II back to the races, for a second in the 1972 Carter Handicap.
Reunited with Avila for three races in the fall, Cañonero II’s only win in the King Ranch colors came in the Stymie Handicap, when he upset Derby and Belmont winner Riva Ridge. Cañonero II’s time for the 1 1/8-mile Stymie, 1:461⁄5, was a new track record at Belmont Park and equaled the American record for the distance. It was the first time that two Kentucky Derby winners competed together since Swaps defeated Determine in the 1955 Californian Stakes.
After a lackluster career at stud in the U.S., Cañonero II was sold and sent back to Venezuela, where he died in 1981.
Reporting on Cañonero II’s death for Daily Racing Form, the late Joe Hirsch wrote: “The wire service from Caracas said that he died of a heart attack. That couldn’t have been correct. There was never anything wrong with Cañonero’s heart.”
Team Cañonero broke up after the Belmont. Pedro Baptista Sr. resolved the financial problems that kept him from attending the Kentucky Derby and he maintained a racing stable in Venezuela until his death in 1984. Pedro Jr. is a successful businessman in Florida. He is not involved in racing. Juan Arias had several offers to train in the United States after the Belmont, but he was cursed by expectations that he could work another miracle. He returned to Venezuela to train and work as a racing official. Gustavo Avila retired from a successful career as a rider in the mid-1980s and lives in Florida with family. He regularly watches replays of Cañonero II’s Triple Crown bid.
Milt Toby is an attorney and award-winning author based in Central Kentucky. His nine books include Canoñero II: The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby’s Most Improbable Winner, from The History Press. He wrote about Canoñero II because of a strong backstory that sounds more like fiction than fact.