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THE FOUNDER, BELIEVING HIS RACE A FAILURE, TOOK HIS OWN LIFE. BUT HIS CONTEST SURVIVED HIM, ENDURING SEVERAL BRUSHES WITH EXTINCTION TO BECOME AMERICA’S LONGEST-RUNNING SPORTS TRADITION. IT TURNS 125 THIS SPRING.
May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
SECRETARIAT’S race times were so fast that at the breed’s rate of improvement, elite horses won’t catch up to him until 2064.
In April 1971 a colt named Canonero II stepped aboard a cargo plane in Caracas, en route to the Derby. The race he was set to contest was in turmoil. In 1968 the Derby winner Dancer’s Image had been disqualified after traces of Butazolidin, a therapeutic, non-performance-affecting antiinflammatory drug similar to aspirin, were found in his system. Many suspected that outsiders seeking to discredit the horse’s owner, Peter Fuller, had tampered with his horse; Fuller had been buried in racist hate mail after donating the colt’s earnings in the Governor’s Gold Cup to Coretta King. But no one ever determined who gave the colt the drug, which, most frustratingly, was later legalized. As Canonero II embarked for Miami on the first leg of his journey, the Derby remained mired in a wrenching court battle as a devastated Fuller fought in vain for vindication for his horse, who was characterized as “doped” by the press. A pall hung over the Derby; the race needed redemption.
Canonero IPs only escorts were the teenage son of the owner Pedro Baptista and several crates of ducks and chickens. No one in the United States had ever heard of him; when a representative called to nominate him to the Triple Crown, the official Chick Lang thought he was kidding. He had good reason. Thanks to an ugly, backward-bending foreleg, the colt had been given away, then sold to a Venezuelan for a pittance, then given away again, a questionable wedding gift to the Venezuelan’s son-in-law. He had been shipped all over the Western Hemisphere to run in cheap races, logging enough air time, wrote Joseph Challmes in The Preakness: A History , “to qualify as a pilot.” But the colt, named for Latin American street musicians, had a taste for distance running, and the Derby’s mile and a quarter looked about right.
Canonero IFs first flight turned back when the plane’s engine caught fire. The second returned with mechanical problems. When he finally got to Miami, he was at wit’s end from the incessant clucking of his fellow passengers. Someone had forgotten the customs papers, so he spent four days locked in quarantine. After clearing customs, he was loaded into a van, which broke down. By the time he finally made it to the track, Canonero II had lost seventy to eighty pounds. His trainer, Juan Arias, feared he would have to be scratched. He .sent the colt out to exercise with a rope around his neck and a boy riding him bareback, to the ridicule of onlookers. Canonero II clocked preposterously slow times. But as Derby Day approached, the colt began coming around. Arias decided to run him.
Leaving the starting gate, Canonero II dropped back to sixteenth and was at eighteenth by the half-mile pole. Everybody expected him to stay there. But what hadn’t occurred to anyone was that in Venezuela the colt had been racing in thin air three thousand feet above sea level; in the oxygen-rich Kentucky air, he had virtually infinite stamina. As the front-runners faded, Canonero II was just getting going. “There was no such animal at the head of the stretch,” Lang told Challmes. “You couldn’t find him. He was back there sucking up all the grit. ... It looked like 20 Mule Team Borax coming down the stretch. And then— pffsst ,out like a grapefruit seed—here he came.” Closing in, the Venezuelan disgrace caught the field, then buried it behind him. The crowd was dead silent. In the press box a reporter muttered, “Canonero II? Who the hell was Canonero the first?” As the horse loped back to the grandstand, his jockey, Gustavo Avila, began waving his arms wildly, and the crowd finally raised a cheer. Down in Venezuela his owner received a call from someone telling him he had won. “That’s a sick joke!” Baptista shouted, hanging up. When more calls came in, he realized what his colt had done. In Caracas, they danced and sang for Canonero II all night long.
The “Caracas Cannonball” won the Preakness and drew a cult following, but like every Derby winner in the long, strange years since Citation, he failed to win the Triple Crown. Pressure was building for a superstar to emerge. Racine, and the Derby, needed a Triple Crown winner, but after twenty-five years of mishaps, scandal, outrageous fortune, and nearmisses, many racegoers believed they would never see another one.
Then, on May 5, 1973, a sleek black colt named Sham leaned out of the final turn in the lead in the ninety-ninth Kentucky Derby. The front-runners were finished, and though he had blood spraying from his chin after ripping two teeth loose in the starting gate, Sham was staging an epic performance. When he hit the wire seconds later, he would register a time fast enough to win every Derby in history with ease.
But Sham lost.