The secret Latin American history of the Kentucky Derby

This Triple Crown season, which opens on May 4 with the Kentucky Derby, horses with Latin American bloodlines are among the top favorites.

Two 2019 derby contenders – Vekoma and Game Winner – are half brothers and the offspring of Candy Ride, one of Argentina’s most famous thoroughbreds. He retired, triumphant, and now shares his winning genes freely – well, for a stud fee of US$80,000 – at Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky.

That two top Derby contenders have their roots in Latin America is no surprise for those who study, as I do, the history of the sport. Many past Kentucky Derby champions hailed from the region – as have their trainers, owners and jockeys.

Cañonero II and the 1971 Kentucky Derby

The 1971 Kentucky Derby belonged to Venezuela’s Cañonero II, although few predicted it.

Announcers regularly referred to Cañonero – a 3-year-old colt with a crooked right foreleg – as the “mystery horse.” In early May 1971, the odds of him winning were long: 500-1. Few in Louisville, the mecca of American horse racing, took the Venezuelan team seriously.

“They say we are clowns,” said Cañonero’s Caracas-based trainer, Juan Arias, as Derby Day approached. “They say we are Indians because my horse gallops slowly, sometimes without a saddle.”

Cañonero II, left, with jockey Gustavo Avila, winning the Kentucky Derby on May 1, 1971. AP Photo
The trip from Caracas to Kentucky was a harrowing one. Cañonero flew to Miami a week before the Derby, where he waited for 12 hours on the plane in the Florida heat while his paperwork cleared. Then he was quarantined for four days before traveling by trailer to Louisville.

The 1,000-pound Cañonero II dropped 70 pounds in the process, but Arias wasn’t worried.

“Just relax, go eat, and we’ll wait for tomorrow,” Arias would say if Cañonero was not eager to train. Within a week, the horse had gained back his confidence – and 50 of his 70 lost pounds.

On Derby Day, a lanky Cañonero II and jockey Gustavo Avila overtook 19 horses to win by three-and-three-quarters lengths, just ahead of his American competitor Jim French – a 3-year-old so rigorously trained, many thought him indefatigable.

Nobody could believe it – except the Venezuelan team who had nurtured Cañonero from a scrawny, worm-infected colt to a global phenomenon.

Most American trainers train for speed,” explained Arias, in Spanish, prior to the 1971 Derby. “I train Cañonero to be a star.”

Arias, Cañonero’s owner Pedro Baptista and groom Juan Quintero then set their sights on the Preakness, the second race of the Triple Crown. Cañonero won there, too, breaking a speed record set in 1955.

Cañonero and his team, now immensely popular, turned to the Belmont Stakes, in Elmont, New York – the final race of the Triple Crown. But fatigue and a bacterial infection in his hoof had weakened Cañonero. He finished fifth.

Though he didn’t win the Triple Crown, Cañonero’s dramatic victories and underdog story brought about a resurgence of interest in the sport of horse racing, according to equine journalist Steve Haskin. Attendance for the 1971 Belmont Stakes surged to 82,694, far surpassing the previous year’s record turnout of 67,961.

Among Cañonero’s fans were many Latinos, drawn to Elmont by the prospect of seeing a Venezuelan team win this quintessentially American race.

Some 2,000 Venezuelans attended the final race of the 1971 Triple Crown series, Haskin reported, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Viva Cañonero!” New York’s Puerto Rican community also turned out to support Cañonero in droves.

Latin American horse racing

Cañonero’s wins were a symbol of pride for Latinos and the Latin American horse racing community.

Though, historically, the vast majority of professional jockeys have come from Latin America – trained in the jockey schools which opened in the 1950s and 1960s in Panama, Puerto Rico and Mexico City – relatively few horses who compete in the U.S. were trained abroad.

Cañonero II earned his place at the Derby training against stiff competition at La Rinconada racetrack in Venezuela. His trainer, Arias, grew up poor in Caracas and fell in love with horses. There, he forged his own style of raising and communicating with horses that was different from the more regimented style of the United States.

“I can learn from American trainers,” Arias told Vault magazine after Cañonero won the Preakness. “But I can also teach them some things.”