May 5, 2010
A Horse You Should Know -- Canonero II
I defy you to watch that video and not be desperate to learn more about the story of Canonero II. Previously unknown to me, I discovered this horse's amazing story a couple of years ago, oddly enough in a book entitled, The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing by Steve Davidowitz. I have an obsession with books whose authors make broad proclamations and aren't afraid of pulling punches when it comes to their opinions. Gee, I can't imagine why....
Deemed "The Greatest Upset of Modern Times" by the author -- though whether this still holds true after Mine That Bird's Derby win last year, I don't know and don't particularly care all that much -- this horse has a much more compelling story (at least in my humble opinion). Canonero II was the people's horse. A story for the ages. One of those once-in-a-lifetime, the stars aligned at just the right moment, in just the right way kind of story. And the casual racing fan (case in point - me!) had never heard his name before.
Just take another look at the video. Starting from the 18th position and slowly picking off his competitors...there is greatness there. Luck may have touched his forelock that day, but Lady Luck clearly wasn't the only reason he won. He had talent, loads of it to judge by that race alone.
However, after that race, Davidowitz writes "It seems that most did not believe what their eyes had seen. They called Canonero a fluke, a skinny horse who looked undernourished who somehow had managed to win the Kentucky Derby through a lot of blind luck. [...] It was embarassing that Canonero had just beaten the best-bred, most expensive horses in the land, most of them born and raised in Kentucky."
But despite all the sneering, he broke out of the gate fast once again in the Preakness, raced head to head with the speedster of the race, Eastern Fleet, and then proceeded to zoom past him, setting a new track record.
God, what a story! To hear it from Davidowitz's ears, the horse was an unwanted, crooked-leg yearling, sold to an Edgar Caibett in Venezuela for $1,200. He didn't show much talent as a 2-year-old, but that changed as a 3-year-old. He appeared to blossom into a formidable stakes winner.
What happened next is almost not to be believed...Amazingly enough, the decision was made to ship the talented colt to Kentucky for the Derby. Why on earth they considered that they had much of a shot, even with the wins in Venezuela, I just can't fathom. Anyway, to get the colt to Louisville, his owner booked him on a cargo plane to Miami where he would be quarantined for 48 hours before the 1,000 mile trailer trip to his final destination. "Unfortunately a terrible tropical storm broke out in midflight, forcing the pilot to return to Venezuela, where Canonero had to remain on the place for about 12 hours before a revised flight plan was approved for a restart. Once in the air, engine trouble forced still another return to Venezuela. About six hours later, the third attempted flight took off and detoured an extra four hours to avoid more turbulence en route to Miami. Everybody on board, including Canonero, had suffered some form of illness during the arduous flights.
Upon arrival in Florida, Canonero was kept onboard the aircraft, sitting on the Tarmac for the duration of the 48 hours of quarantine. The van to Louisville turned out to be a single-horse trailer hooked up behind a 1965 Oldsmobile. Arias, the leading trainer in Venezuela, and his groom, Pedro Quintero, shared the driving chores straight through the 26-hour trip."
Not surprisingly, when the horse finally made it to Louisville, he looked pitiful. By all reports, his ribs were clearly visible and people were publicly exhorting the trainer and owner to rethink the horse's entry. His subsequent win was deemed a fluke, a complete stroke of luck and one which would be erased come Preakness Day.
One of the most interesting aspects of this story is that Arias, his trainer, was a bit of a maverick in the horse-training world. When all other horses were put into sharp works prior to the Preakness, a race that favors speed, Canonero was galloping slowly for a half mile. That's it. People took this as a sign of his overall lack of talent, when they really should have looked to this trainer as a bit of a unique genius - the likes of which may never be seen again. Particularly in hindsight, as his horse won the Preakness handily. Canonero didn't win the Belmont - he had a case of hives and likely should have been scratched. But interestingly, Davidowitz remarks, "[...]Arias never was accepted as a bona fide training talent despite his success, mostly because he used highly unorthodox training methods that did not accent speed.
Ignored and dismissed as lucky, Arias was not even invited to attend the Kentucky Derby trainers' dinner that always includes ever trainer of a Kentucky Derby horse, nor was he given any token recognition at the end of the year for developing Canonero..."
Imagine this - a trainer who pulled off a feat that few others could have or even would have attempted. He was essentially shunned from the pantheon of great racing trainers simply because he was different. What a ridiculously stupid, insular view. He clearly had a training genius that eludes modern trainers. And even if they did exist nowadays, what would be their incentive for stepping forward? In fact, who would hire them? Even if you could point to Juan Arias as a shining example. It's disheartening when an industry becomes so fearful of change that we cannot even celebrate the few fringe members that are true artists.
This man deserves recognition, however belatedly. And Canonero needs to be more of a household name. Maybe I'll have to be the one to write the book.