Canonero II, (Can-yo-nay-roe), or “The Caracas Cannonball”, was a Venezuelan champion that defied the odds and won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1971. He was a $1200 Fall Keeneland Sales purchase, the price being so low because the colt was born with a crooked right leg and thought to not be of any racing ability. Venezuelan breeder Ramon Echegaray and bloodstock agent Luis Navas purchased the colt and shipped him to Venezuela where he would begin his racing career.
Navas sold the colt to Pedro Baptista who registered the colt in his son-in-law’s name. Baptisa, who was very superstitious had entered racing with 9 horses that didn’t win any races for 2 years. Believing it to be bad luck, he started putting the horses in all of his children’s names. Baptista liked the colt’s bloodlines, being by *Prehendre, a beautiful stallion that had finished second in the 1966 Epsom Derby. Canonero was out of the Nantallah mare, Dixieland II who was a winner in England.
His 2YO season would have the youngster facing older horses, due to the way racing was set up in Venezuela for imported horses. He had his first win at La Rinconda racetrack, finishing the 6 -furlong event in front by 6 lengths. A month later the connections decided to send the colt to Del Mar, where he finished third in an allowance and then 5th in the Del Mar Futurity. After the Futurity, Baptista was offered $80,000 for the colt, which he refused. Returned to Caracas, Canonero II, who had received the II while in America due to another horse having the same name, the bay colt would be victorious in sprint race by one length.
As a 3YO, the colt would put together 4 victories before heading to the states. He raced twice at the mile and a quarter distance with an unplaced finish as well as a win. The first time he ran the distance was nearly three months before the Kentucky Derby. While watching Canonero, Baptista would say that in a dream his deceased mother had told him that the horse would win the Kentucky Derby. It was almost not to be, as Canonero’s nomination to the Triple Crown was almost thrown away as it was thought to be a joke when Baptista called to enter the colt. The bay whose name means “Gunner” would be put on a cargo plane with chickens and ducks. During the flight one of the plane’s engines caught on fire, causing its return to Caracas. Finally, after a 24-hour flight he got to Miami, but was unable to leave the plane as a result of them not having the correct paperwork. The colt was then sent to Panama where he would become dehydrated from the heat. When he finally got to return to Miami, he had to spend four days in quarantine, allowed only to eat hay he would lose 70 pounds in the process. He was also relegated to standing in a horrible stall that would eventually cause him hoof ailments that, together with his leg, caused his 4th place effort in the Belmont. Owing to a lack of money from all of the unnecessary travel, the horse would be vanned the 1,100 miles to Churchill Downs, where he wasn’t allowed in right away due to the language barrier.
None of the past issues showed themselves during the running of the big race that took place in front of a crowd of more than 123,000. Running at the back of the pack of 20 horses under jockey Gustavo Avila, Canonero II would come from nearly 20 lengths off the pace. With only a half mile remaining, the “Cannonball” was still 15 lengths back, although Avila was working the colt to the outside. In an incredible drive, the tandem would circle those remaining in front to win by 3 ¾ lengths in a time of 2:03 1/5. Paying $19.40, a low amount only because he was coupled with 5 other horses, it is possible that his odds may have been lower than Donerail’s 91-1.
He proved that his win was not a fluke when he dueled throughout the Preakness after catching pacesetter, Eastern Fleet. After wearing his foe down, Canonero would pass the tiring colt to win by a length and a half, lowering the 16 year old track record set by Nashua in a record time of 1:54 for the 1 3/16 mile race. Going into the Belmont, a record crowd showed up in hopes of a Triple Crown, however the horse’s long journey and issues finally took their toll. He developed thrush from the stall conditions in quarantine, having to wear a leather pad over the hoof, in addition to losing a tooth cap that gave him a fever, causing him to miss training. After setting the pace for a mile, he would tire and finish fourth. Despite the loss, he would go on to earn 3YO Champion honors.
King Ranch purchased the colt for $1 million after the Belmont, eventually returning him to the races. He would show his true self, defeating Riva Ridge in the Stymie Handicap while setting a track record. He would be retired and syndicated for $1.6 million to Gainesway, then eventually resold and returned to Venezuela where he would pass away in 1981 after siring three stakes winners.
(Photo courtesy of Kentucky Derby Museum archives)