Rags to riches Kentucky Derby winners: Canonero II

The Juan Arias-trained Canonero II surprised the world when winning the Kentucky Derby in 1971 at incredible odds - and his story is even more incredible.

Few horses have overcome such overwhelming odds to win the Kentucky Derby as Canonero II, the Latino hero with the crooked leg.

The bay colt was trained in the racing backwater of Venezuela but shocked the great and the good of US equine sport in 1971 by rolling to a three-and-three-quarter length win in the Churchill Downs signature event.

The horse known as the "Caracas Cannonball" would have undoubtedly won the Kentucky Derby with the largest odds of all time had he not been thrown into a group of betting pool no-hopers. This group of five colts offered odds of 8/1 if any one of them passed the post in first place. Future estimates of Canonero II's true odds had him at 500/1.

Yet the fact that Canonero II even appeared in the Kentucky Derby at all is a story in itself, with almost everything standing in the way of the horse making his way from Caracas for "The Greatest Two Minutes in Sport".

The road to the Kentucky Derby

Canonero II's role as a true blue collar hero came courtesy of the horse's battle with adversity, starting off with being sold for just $1,200 at the Keeneland sales in Lexington, Kentucky, before being shipped by new owner Pedro Baptista to his native Venezuela. Few would have expected the horse to go from the modest La Rinconada Hippodrome in Caracas, some 900m above sea level, to the Kentucky Derby, but the horse qualified through his US breeding.

The Caracas Cannonball's route to Churchill Downs was not smooth, however, as the horse suffered from various ailments related to his crooked right foreleg. The horse's trainer Juan Arias had a job of rehabilitation as much as straightforward training and this led to a mixed racing record of five wins out of nine in Venezuela. Canonero II was also sent to the US for a tilt at the Del Mar Futurity in California where he finished fifth, hardly black type form for the Kentucky Derby.

Legend has it that Baptista tried to sell Canonero II while he was in California but the language barrier prevented a sale. Nevertheless, like future Kentucky Derby underdog winner Mine That Bird, Baptista saw enough in Canonero II's ability to have a stab at the big one at Churchill Downs.

Getting there would be easier said than done, however. It took three flights to get poor Canonero II to the US from Venezuela. The first plane suffered from mechanical problems and the second one caught fire. When Canonero II eventually made it to Florida, the horse's papers weren't correct, meaning a sweltering wait in the cargo plane followed by a further four days in quarantine.

A grueling road trip to Churchill Downs was then undertaken, with the horse being dismissed as an also-ran before it had even taken to the track after arriving underweight. No one in the Canonero II camp spoke English, resulting in race preparations being an awkward affair.

A not entirely quick five furlong workout before the big race merely added to Canonero II's status as a huge outsider, not that he was considered much at all.

Things didn't exactly improve after the start on May 1, 1971, in front of 123,284 people. Canonero II found himself in 18th place after half a mile, with jockey Gustavo Avila struggling to keep his mount in contention. However, Canonero II had been used to running the Kentucky Derby distance of a mile and a quarter and coming towards the final turn at Churchill Downs, he went from 17th place to fourth.

If Canonero II could win in the heat and altitude of Caracas, he could find true grit to see off his illustrious competitors in the Kentucky Derby. Avila did not even reach for the whip in the final straight as the Caracas Cannonball bowled past Santa Anita Derby winner Jim French to win by nearly four lengths.

After the race there was confusion as to how this little-known horse from Venezuela could turn up at Churchill Downs and leave with the garland of red roses. This didn't matter to the Canonero II connections though, who had shut up their detractors in style.

"They say we are clowns. They say we are Indians because my horse gallops slowly, sometimes without a saddle. They come to look at my horse but turn away and wrinkle up their noses. Now I no longer have to justify myself. What can they say now?," trainer Arias told Sports Illustrated.

The horse's owner Baptista was back in Caracas and couldn't watch the race as it wasn't shown on TV. When a phone call came through to Baptista that Canonero II had won, he thought it was a joke. However, there was eventually a party in Caracas with winning jockey Avila treated as a national hero.

Preakness perfection and attack on the Triple Crown

Canonero II wasn't done there and went on to fly in the face of his no-hoper reputation by taking the Preakness Stakes too, in a then-record time of 1:54.00.

The Triple Crown beckoned for Canonero II, attracting a huge Latino audience to Belmont Park for the final leg of the pinnacle of US Thoroughbred racing, the Belmont Stakes. A record crowd of 82,694, swelled by an estimated 25,000 Venezuelans, thronged the New York track with an atmosphere more akin to a soccer match than a horse race.

Canonero II was suffering from a swollen hock, however, and finished a brave fourth. With a not too shabby Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes to his name, the horse that was traded early in his career for just $1,200 was sold for a cool $1.5million to King Ranch owner Robert Kleberg.

Canonero II enjoys further success

Canonero II suffered from a series of injuries which prevented him from truly living up to the huge price tag but, as always, he was able to spring a surprise or two.

In 1972, Canonero II lined up against that year's Kentucky Derby winner Riva Ridge in the Stymie Handicap at Belmont Park. Canonero II was sent off at 5/1 versus the odds-on Riva Ridge but the Caracas Cannonball returned to form in a five-length winning performance, setting a race record which still stands today.

Milton Toby, author of the book Canonero II: The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby's Most Improbable Winner, had the final word on the horse's success at Churchill Downs in the Run For The Roses: "He was a very good horse…, it wasn't an upset, it was a surprise, and an upset and a surprise are not the same thing."

Canonero II played his part in building the Kentucky Derby into a race with a reputation where underdogs can prevail and showed that no horse can be written off in "The Greatest Two Minutes in Sport".