Inspired by a horse
When you ask someone who their childhood sports hero was, you'll likely hear answers like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Cassius Clay, Magic Johnson, or Pele. But when you read the following paragraphs, you'll understand why it was a horse that inspired me. It was a horse that showed me I could be anything I wanted to be. It was a horse that taught me perseverence, to forge ahead against all odds, and to tune out the negative voices. This horse was not just any ordinary horse. It was Canonero II.
Sometimes stories are so good; they just have to be true.
Canonero II was bred by Edward B. Benjamin in Kentucky, in 1969. Being born with a crooked right foreleg deemed that this young bay colt would have no future in thoroughbred racing. He was actually said to be named after Latin American street musicians. Given away, he was put up for auction shortly afterwards.
Edgar Caibett had no idea what the future might hold when he purchased this sad little yearling for $1,200 at the 1969 Keeneland September yearling sale (a fall sale for racehorses with a pedigree and/or conformation not up to the required standards of most summer-sale yearlings). But he shipped the colt to his native Venezuela, and then gave the colt away as a wedding gift to his son-in-law.
His racing career began as a two year old. Canonero II started to earn an undistinguished record in racing and traveled all over the western hemisphere to participate in numerous cheaper races. It was joked that he had logged enough air time to qualify as a pilot.
Sent to the United States, in 1971, to be trained by unorthodox methods by a little known trainer (Juan Arias), Canonero II was entered into the Triple Crown.
At first, the Triple Crown representative thought it was a joke to see this name on the ballot. The horse was so lightly regarded in the race that he was regulated to the mutual field. For betting purposes, it’s a single grouping that the track handicapper uses as a catchall for several horses thought to have little chance of winning.
Canonero II’s only escorts to the Derby from Venezuela were the teenage son of his owner Pedro Baptista and crates of ducks and chickens. His first flight was missed due to a fire in the plane’s engine, and the second flight had mechanical problems. Upon his arrival in Miami, it was discovered they forgot his customs papers. He spent four days in quarantine. After his release, the van he was transported in broke down. The entire episode of travel caused the horse to lose 80 pounds.
From the 18th spot in a 20-horse field, the young colt took the world by surprise and won the race by 3 ¾ length in what was perhaps the biggest upset in horse racing history.
When TV commentators tried to interview trainer Juan Arias and jockey Gustavo Avila after the Kentucky Derby, they quickly learned they would need a translator. However, one was never sought as Canonero II wasn’t considered high enough to warrant the effort.
Canonero II, the unlikely hero of the Kentucky Derby, set a new track record for time in winning the Preakness Stakes.
Now taken seriously and drawing a cult following, particularly from the Latino community, Canonero II was stricken with a foot infection several days before the Belmont Stakes. He did manage to take the lead but clearly struggled and finished fourth, narrowly missing a win of the anticipated Triple Crown. He still managed to win the Eclipse Award for three-year-old colts.
Canonero II was sold to Hall of Fame trainer Buddy Hirsch. He raced his best race of his career in the Stymie Handicap at Belmont Park in 1972, defeating champion Riva Ridge.
Near the end of 1972, Canonero II was retired to stud. He died nine years later in 1981.