Canoñero II at Churchill Downs

In honor of the upcoming Preakness Stakes, let’s take a moment to remember the ultimate underdog: Cañonero II.

He was the shocking winner of the 1971 Kentucky Derby by 3-3/4 lengths against odds that would probably exceed 91/1. (Cañonero II was part of the mutuel field, which meant he was included in a group of six horses that could not be bet on individually. Odds weren’t set for him specifically.) His jockey didn’t even use a whip during the spectacular win!

Of course most people branded him a one-hit wonder, but the Venezuelan colt had the cojones to follow up the Derby with a win in the Preakness Stakes. After the Preakness, Cañonero II developed a hoof infection and would have been scratched under normal circumstances, but Venezuelan national pride was running high and his handlers didn’t want to disappoint. Sports Illustrated commented on Cañonero II’s condition the week of the Belmont, saying, “To pretend that he is a miracle horse with recuperative powers to match his heart is a whimsy that can only hurt the colt, and his reputation, and the people—bettors and laymen alike—who have come to love him.”

Sports Illustrated had the opinion that Cañonero II should not have competed in the Belmont because of an infection.

Cañonero II finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes, but the next year he ran against the Derby-winning great, Riva Ridge, and left him in the dust, setting a new track record in the Stymie Handicap.

A Kentucky-bred crooked-legged colt with a funny crab-like running gait, Cañonero II sold for a mere $1,200 at Keeneland as a yearling and was shipped to Venezuela for a life of obscurity. He returned to the States just in time for the Kentucky Derby, where no one took him seriously but his unconventional trainer, Juan Arias. Instead of using intimidation and control as a training technique, Arias showered Cañonero II with love and affection — which the horse gladly repaid by putting all his heart into the Triple Crown races.

Cañonero II

Cañonero II

But there’s so much more to Cañonero II, like his pedigree of up-close breeding legends, the physical fault that made him a bargain at the Keeneland yearling sale, and his harrowing journey from Venezuela to the U.S. This blog post talks about his travel woes and his adoring trainer, and Bloodhorse has a very thorough biography of the stallion.

There was even a documentary called The Ballad of Cañonero II about his bid for the Triple Crown races.

Because Cañonero II’s wins were soon overshadowed by the history-making Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, the hero to thousands of Venezuelans has nearly been forgotten in racing history. But his story is a lovely reminder that every now and then a big heart, a loving trainer, and a stroke of luck are all it takes to be a champion.

In the video below, you can watch Cañonero II win the 1971 Kentucky Derby. Check out Milton C. Toby’s book, Cañonero II: The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby’s Most Improbable Winner, to read more about this amazing dark horse.