This is the saga of Canonero II, the Caracas Cannonball that came out of Venezuela 20 years ago and made a gallant run at winning horse racing's Triple Crown.
A $1,200 yearling with a crooked right foreleg was transformed into a legend. He won the Kentucky Derby. He won the Preakness. He finished fourth in the Belmont. He infuriated the racing establishment, yet endeared himself to millions who were swept up by a tale of long shots and unlikely heroes.
"It was like Disneyland to be around Canonero II," former Pimlico general manager Chick Lang said. "It was thrilling."
The year was 1971. Richard Nixon was in the White House. U.S. troops were in Vietnam. The cost of a first-class postage stamp rose from 6 to 8 cents. The average annual salary in baseball was $28,000. The star player for the Baltimore Orioles was Frank Robinson.
Canonero II's story began at the 1970 Keeneland fall sale, when agent Luis Navas put down $1,200 to purchase the scrawny-looking horse, the son of Pretendre-Dixieland II by Nantallah. Navas brought the horse back to Venezuela and, after receiving dozens of rejections, finally sold him for $10,000 to Caracas businessman Pedro Baptista. Because his $ manufacturing business was failing, Baptista placed the horse in the name of his son-in-law, Edgar Caibett.
After watching the horse win several races the following spring, Baptista said, he dreamed that his deceased mother told him Canonero II was going to win the Kentucky Derby. Soon, the horse was bound for Kentucky in the back of a cargo plane, sharing space with hundreds of chickens and ducks heading for market.
The journey became a nightmare. An engine caught fire, forcing the plane to return to Caracas. Once in Miami, the horse was not allowed to leave the plane because it did not have proper papers. Instead, Canonero II was sent to Panama, where he became dehydrated in the heat.
Back in Miami again, the horse spent four days in quarantine and lost 70 pounds. Finally, Canonero II was released, but he was forced to travel 1,100 miles to Churchill Downs by van because the owners were running out of money. When the horse got to the track, he wasn't allowed in because no one in the traveling party could speak English to talk their way past security guards.
But on Derby Day, Canonero II was spectacular. After the charge from the gate, the horse was lost in the dust, in 18th place, 20 lengths off the lead under jockey Gustavo Avila. But on the far turn, Canonero II exploded, a blur of brown silks and brown flesh. The horse won by 3 1/4 lengths, and trainer Juan Arias wept in the winner's circle.
The next test was the 96th Preakness at Pimlico. A crowd of 47,221 gathered. That year, the infield was opened, and nearly 10,000 fans waited patiently as they passed through two ticket booths to make their way to the party.
Most people in racing still discounted Canonero II's Derby performance. Poor workouts heading into the Preakness only intensified the mystery surrounding this unlikely Triple Crown candidate.
"They laughed at us in Kentucky, and they laughed at us here," Arias said. "But we will win here, just as we did there."
Arias was right. The Preakness turned into a two-horse race, a duel between Canonero II and Eastern Fleet, the pride of Calumet Farm. Eddie Maple, the Eastern Fleet jockey, tried to run away from Canonero II. But, amazingly, the horse that plodded in the Derby sprinted in the Preakness.
"I was surprised to see the horse Canonero alongside me," Maple said. "I guess everybody in America felt the same way."
At the sixteenth pole, Canonero II drew away from Eastern Fleet. Maple and Avila looked at one another, but neither spoke. "He didn't even say 'adios,' " Maple said.
Canonero II won by a length and a half in the record time of 1 minute, 54 seconds for the 1 3/16-mile race. In the winner's circle, the Canonero II entourage danced, wept and sang the Venezuelan national anthem.
"The New York newspapers, they said he's a Cinderella horse," said Jose Almenar, a friend of the Canonero II ownership group. "But Canonero II is no Cinderella horse. He's a great horse."
The Canonero II bandwagon rolled on. After the Preakness, Baptista was offered $3.1 million by trainer Arnold Winick to lease the colt, provided he didn't run in the Belmont. But the dream of owning the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948 spurred Baptista. Despite a hoof problem, the horse ran in the Belmont and finished fourth.
Canonero II was sold to King Ranch for $1.5 million. A year later, in a final glorious race, Canonero II defeated Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Riva Ridge in the Stymie Handicap.
The $1,200 yearling who grew to become a champion on the racetrack proved to be an unsuccessful sire in retirement. Canonero II was shipped back to Venezuela and died of colic in 1981.
Those who followed Canonero II through the remarkable five-week Triple Crown dream never again enjoyed great success in horse racing. Avila, the jockey, made only 10 more starts in the United States and recently retired. Arias continues to train horses in Venezuela but is said to be barely making a living.
Baptista, the owner, recovered from his financial woes before his death in 1984. It was his dream that inspired a tale. On the day Canonero II won the Kentucky Derby, Baptista heard the news on the radio. He was visiting his mother's grave.