The outbreak of Covid-19 bumped the Kentucky Derby to the first Saturday of
September in 2020, but the annual ‘Run for the Roses’ returns to its
traditional first Saturday in May spot on the calendar this year.
The date for 2021 is May 1, and it is significant in Derby history. On that date 50 years ago, Canonero II, an invader from Venezuela who nobody had heard of before the 1971 Kentucky Derby, became a most improbable winner of the race when he came dashing down the pike in front of a then record turnout of 123,284 spectators on his way to recording a 3 3/4-length victory in the 97th edition of the American classic.
In the space of 2:03 1/5, the 1971 Kentucky Derby made the transition from cheap and lackluster to one of the most unforgettable of all Derbies. That is how long it took the enchanting visitor from Venezuela to win the race and turn the whole scene around at Louisville. He gave distinction to the 97th Derby, which for weeks had been badmouthed for a lack of quality in the field.
Kentucky is where Canonero II started. Bred in the state and taken to the 1969 Keeneland sales as a yearling, he was studied by students of conformation, who winced and drew back. This little bay horse, they announced, had a crooked leg. He also had an unimpressive pedigree. In the sales, he brought the grand sum of $1,200 (U.S.) from a Venezuelan bloodstock agent, Luis Navas, who brought the horse home and sold him to fellow countryman Pedro Baptista for 34,000 bolivars, which equated to $7,900 in U.S. currency.
Baptista, an industrialist, owned several race horses. “It was his passion,” said his son Pedro Baptista Jr. “My father was a hands-on owner who wanted to be involved in every particular step in training the horses. He tried different trainers, but none of them could cope with that.”
While searching for a new trainer, Baptista Sr. met Juan Arias, who asked Baptista for an opportunity to train. “My father and Juan became good friends and began to understand one another,” said Baptista Jr.
Canonero II was a good runner at age 2 but didn’t show any signs of becoming extraordinary. However, the elder Baptista had a dream.
“The dream of my father from a very young age was the Kentucky Derby. At that time, it was more than a dream, it was an impossible dream. But that was my father. My father loved impossible dreams. In his personal life, his industrial life, as a businessman. Everything that was impossible, he would pursue it. He always wanted to be in the Kentucky Derby. After watching the horse perform in Venezuela, my father thought Canonero II was the one,” Baptista Jr. explained.
In the fall, Canonero II was shipped to Del Mar, Calif. “We had to try the horse against the level of horses that he would likely encounter in the Kentucky Derby,” said Baptista Jr. Canonero II finished third in an allowance race, then fifth in the Del Mar Futurity after encountering trouble in the race.
While in the Golden State, Canonero II’s handlers tried to unload him, not wishing to pay his fare back to Venezuela.
“Because my father was having problems with the business and his financial situation was extremely tight, his instruction was: 'See if you could get good money for the horse,' ” said Baptista, Jr. When no buyers appeared, they took him home grudgingly. But the elder Baptista felt Canonero II passed the test in his two starts in California and his Derby dream continued on.
In early January 1971, the newly turned 3-year-old Canonero II defeated older horses, and in March, when he won at a mile-and-a quarter, Arias and Baptista knew they had a horse who could handle the distance in Kentucky.
With Canonero II already nominated to the Kentucky Derby and the race now fast approaching, Baptista Sr., sensing the feeling of catching lightning in a bottle, sent Canonero II to the U.S. aboard a plane whose engine caught fire and had to return. Starting out a second time, the plane suffered a mechanical malfunction and had to come back again. Canonero II waited out a third try that finally got him to Miami, where he waited for 12 hours on the plane in the Florida heat while his paperwork cleared before being slapped into quarantine for four days, losing 70 pounds. Canonero II then was shipped 1,200 miles by van to Kentucky, and when he arrived at Churchill Downs a week before the Derby, he looked awful. He was incredibly emaciated and could barely walk, much less run.
Once on the grounds, the horse and his entourage were categorized by observers as a "farce," and a "running joke." In addition, the training methods used by trainer Juan Arias to prepare Canonero II were questioned and laughed at. The image of Canonero II to those who saw him work out prior to the Derby was that of a slow-moving horse, but not many people knew the horse or how fast he could run. Arias knew and that’s all that mattered. By Derby Eve, Canonero II had regained much of his lost weight and was ready for the big race.
Canonero II’s financially strapped owner couldn’t afford a flight to Kentucky to watch his Derby prospect run, so he sent his son to represent the Baptista family. “I sold my car to help out on the expenses,” said Baptista Jr. “It was so exciting for me to be there. The feeling is indescribable.”
Because of the financial situation, the elder Baptista registered Canonero II under the name of his son-in-law, Edgar Caibett, but the brown silks that would be donned by the rider were owned by Baptista Jr. “The colors belonged to me in Venezuela. I chose them, because I loved chocolate,” chuckled Baptista, Jr. “And I still do,” he added.
'Mystery horse' placed in field
The 1971 Derby was cluttered with a hodgepodge of horses that had little business being in it, and their mere presence was virtually guaranteeing it would not be a truly run race. Canonero II – the "mystery horse." as he was often called – was considered one of the horses who shouldn’t be participating in the Derby. He was placed in the "field" along with five other horses to form one betting unit. Field horses are expected to be the weakest in the race. Field horses rarely win the Kentucky Derby. It had happened on only three occasions in the 96-year history of the race, and the last time it occurred was 20 years prior, in 1951.
But the public was unaware that Canonero II had run very well in South America. He recorded four victories in eight starts as a 3-year old, but handicappers who studied the past performances of the 20 horses that were entered in the race had no chance of coming up with Canonero II—for the simple reason that there was almost nothing to study. In the Racing Form, in the past performances under Canonero II’s name, there was this line: "Missing data unavailable at this time." The colt did have one thing in his favor: He was the only runner in the pack who had raced previously at the 1 1/4-mile distance. He ran the distance twice at the La Rinconada track in Caracas and won one of the races.
The riding assignment on Canonero II was given to top South America jockey Gustavo Avila, a 32-year-old Venezuelan who had ridden the horse multiple times in South America, winning twice. For Avila, who began riding professionally in 1955, the Kentucky Derby was not his first race in America, but it certainly was his biggest. “I was not nervous, I was very confident in myself and in my horse,” Avila said. The jockey had experience riding in large fields too. “In some races I rode in Argentina, there were sometimes 20 to 40 horses.”
On Derby Day, the sun was out, the sky was blue and the track was fast. The bell clanged, the gates opened and jam-packed Churchill Downs came alive with noise and color. As expected, Bold and Able, representing Calumet Farm, came blasting out of his No. 1 stall to take the lead with a trio of horses chasing him. Another Calumet runner, Eastern Fleet, worked his way over from his outside post (17) to establish good position going into the first turn. As the field headed into the backstretch, Unconscious, the 5-2 favorite, moved in behind the leaders. Canonero II seemed to confirm what people had assumed – He couldn’t run fast. After a half-mile had been completed, he was in 18th place. Heading into the far turn, the two Calumets were now running together, with Unconscious under jockey Laffit Pincay looming menacingly on the outside.
Meanwhile, back in the middle of the cavalry charge, Canonero II had been launched like a projectile when he was given his cue. “I told him, now it’s your turn and mine,” Avila said. The strong, late run he threw at his gasping rivals in the Derby was something to behold. From the far turn to the quarter-pole at the head of the Churchill Downs stretch, Canonero II made a breath-taking rally, passing rivals one after another. And when they straightened into the lane, there he was, this $1,200 bargain-basement colt – in front and in complete command – moving away and winning with authority.
“When I hit the front, I stayed focused and kept my concentration on my horse,” stated Avila. “I realized (that he won) after the wire.”
“I was feeling kind of sad, looking at the position he had before the turn”, Baptista Jr. said. “Then suddenly I saw the horse coming quickly from the outside and I jumped on the back of another guy in front of me and started screaming and going out of my head because I felt he was going to win.” That feeling soon turned to reality as the horse wearing his brown silks with No. 15 on the saddlecloth crossed under the finish line.
Santa Anita Derby winner Jim French, who had rough going in the Derby, being knocked sideways at the half-mile pole, finally got through the mob to finish second. It was two lengths back to third-place Bold Reason, who poked his neck ahead of Eastern Fleet. Unconscious faded to fifth, while the early pacesetter, Bold and Able, staggered home eighth.
Avila encountered no traffic, keeping his horse wide and out of trouble from the beginning. “When I asked Canonero II to start running, I knew I had the race won. My horse was slow at the start, but because he was very strong the last six furlongs that was the reason he won,” Avila said.
Canonero II, the Kentucky-bred who came back to Churchill Downs by way of Venezuela, broke open the then richest Derby in history, earning a $145,500 jackpot. His price across the board was $19.40, $8.00, and $4.20. It would have been at least four times that, if not more, if Canonero II had run on his own instead of being coupled in the mutuel field.
Grouped with him were Barbizon Streak, who finished 16th; Knight Counter, 17th; Jr’s Arrowhead, 18th; Formulla, 19th; and Saigon Warrior, 20th and last. The racing secretary certainly got it right designating the five as field horses who were the weakest but completely whiffed on Canonero II.
Canonero translates to “Gunner”, and he really shot them all down. The horse that sold for nothing proved to be something. Canonero II was little known when he came to Churchill Downs, but he will long be remembered in Derby lore for what he did on May 1, 1971.
NOTE: "The People’s Horse (The True Story of Canonero II)," a movie written and directed by Salomon Gill, is set for release in Fall 2022.