The most dramatic horse-racing story of the last decade came to an anticlimactic end this week.
Canonero II died of a heart attack in Caracas, Venezuela. He had been virtually banished there after his stud career in Kentucky had turned into a dismal failure. The man who had been responsible for the horse's success, trainer Juan Arias, had long ago gone back home to South America, where he, too, has been relegated to obscurity.
But for a few shining weeks, Canonero seemed a wonder horse and Arias a genius. Even in a decade that was to produce horses like Secretariat and Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, there was no Triple Crown series that evoked such passions as that of 1971.
Canonero's breeding and origins were humble -- he had been sold as a yearling for $1,200 -- and so was his record when he arrived without fanfare at Churchill Downs. His performances in Venezuela hadn't even suggested that he was an exceptional 3-year-old by that country's standards.
His physical condition had been hurt by a horrendous trip to Louisville (which included three days in quarantine and a 20-hour van ride). His only workout before the Derby was a half mile in a laughable 53 seconds. Even at a media event where reporters were writing about every obscure angle, nobody paid attention to Canonero or Juan Arias.
They didn't until those unfamiliar black silks came flying on the outside of a 20-horse field, and Canonero had won the Derby by nearly four lengths. It was a decisive victory, and yet it had been so totally unforeseeable, so inexplicable, that nobody quite accepted the reality of what had happened. When Canonero came to Pimlico, he was still no storybook hero; he was a butt of jokes, an object of skepticism.
The skepticism turned to derision when Arias gave Canonero his only workout in preparation for the Preakness and the colt plodded five furlongs in 1:05 2/5. A clocker commented, "I've never seen a horse win a race off a workout like that in my life." A Baltimore journalist wrote that Canonero was lame.
Clem Florio and I were both stunned by the slowness of the workout, and as we walked back from the track with Arias, we made gestures to ask just what had happened. The trainer gave us a one-word reply. "Perfecto," he said.
Even if the horse's condition were perfecto, Pimlico is a race track where horses who try to come from 20 lengths behind -- as Canonero had done in the Derby -- rarely win. Yet the press didn't even bother to ask Arias about this, as if a black man who didn't even speak English could not possibly understand complex racing strategy.
Arias understood. The most electrifying moment I have ever witnessed in a horse race was the moment the gate opened for the Preakness and Canonero came out battling head-and-head for the lead. And he kept on going, winning the Preakness in track-record time. How had Arias instilled that speed in the colt when his only workout had been so laughably slow? The trainer refused to comment. He would only say, through an interpreter, "They could not hold back destiny."
Now the skepticism had turned to adulation, and Canonero's attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner in 23 years was a cause celebre. Belmont Park had never seen a day quite like it. A record crowd of 81,036 turned out to see Canonero's bid to make history. Throughout the grandstand, Latins gathered in groups, dancing to the sounds of guitars and maracas, punctuating their movements with shouts of "Viva Canonero!" They formed conga lines and danced from floor to floor of the stately old track.
Their celebration was, of course, premature. Canonero had been suffering from a foot infection and had missed some training before the Belmont. Whether those problems or his own limitations were the cause, he faded in the stretch and finished fourth behind an undistinguished horse named Pass Catcher. The storybook part of Canonero's career was over. The King Ranch bought him for $1 million and campaigned him as a 4-year-old, but the colt had only one notable triumph that season; in a rare confrontation between two Kentucky Derby winners, he scored a smashing triumph over Riva Ridge.
When Canonero was retired from competition and sent to stud, his triumphs were even fewer. Hampered, perhaps, by his own modest bloodlines, his conformation defects and his unfashionableness in Kentucky breeding circles, he never produced a single offspring of quality. His stud fee had been reduced to a paltry $1,500 before he was sent to South America.
An objective appraisal of Canonero would suggest that he was a fairly good racehorse who had the fortune to be born into a very poor thoroughbred crop. He can be credited with only three excellent performances in a three-year racing career. He would probably have to be considered a below-average Kentucky Derby winner.
No matter. Those of us who followed him through the 1971 Triple Crown series will always accord him a special place in history.