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Derby Legends

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By Jerry Izenberg


This will be my 53rd Derby.   

Erwin S. Cobb, a good old boy from down there said, “If you ain’t been to the Kentucky Derby, you ain’t been no wheres and you ain’t done nothing.” 

My first year, I was impressed by the savagery in the infield. Girls taking off their tops, everybody rushing to the fence crowding so hard to try to see something. I never even got to see the race then with so many crowded in there. These days, the race has lost none of its appeal. I mean, you can get 165, 000 people at a race. As they say in my old neighborhood, “That ain’t chopped liver.”

I still go because, well, for one thing, I like to eat. It’s my job. For another, I love it. The Kentucky Derby is generally won at the wire, but it’s lost in two spots. The first spot is coming out of the gate. You get 20 horses, all trying to get racing room. All trying not to get shut out and settled into where they don’t want to be. They bang, and slam. A lot of horses get slammed at the gate, and very seldom is a foul called. Then, they go past the clubhouse and they shoehorn into the first turn. Everybody wants to be in a decent position there. I can’t tell you the number of races that have been lost coming out of that turn.  Because, the positioning and banging, and everything else. It’s a grueling race. These are horses that are barely out of the equine diapers. They are three years old and they’ve never run this far. It’s quite a revelation. 

Can they get the distance?

It’s a spectacle and odd things happen. The unexpected always happens. My heroes from this race really are flaming underdogs who are able to win.

There was Cañonero II. 

He was born with a crooked leg and he went very cheap to sales. He couldn’t win, he couldn’t do anything. A Venezuelan bought the horse, and raced him a couple of times, and just did nothing. The trainer’s name was Juan Arias and he was the first black trainer. In the Derby, it was slavery days.

He said, “We go home. We can’t win here.  We go home.”

He goes home, and he’s got a jockey named Gustavo Avila who flunked out of Venezuelan National Jockey School, because he kept falling off the horse. This combination is running this horse, and he’s training pretty good in Venezuela, where they have mile and a quarter races. We don’t have them here. The Derby is the first one that these horses see.

So, the owner said, “You’ve got to beat this one horse that you couldn’t beat. You’ve got to beat this horse. Find a mile and a quarter race.” 

They announced they were going to go to the Kentucky Derby to use the race as a stepping stone. Well, the hardboots in Kentucky go beserk over that. He flies out of Venezuela, and he’s just before the point of no return, and an engine catches on fire! They turn around and they go back to wherever they flew from. They leave the horse on the plane, while they are putting another engine on and off they go again. It took twice as long to make the flight from Venezuela. He goes into quarantine, in Miami. Well, now it’s like a week before the race and he’s out of quarantine.

Avila calls the owner and says, “Hey, there’s a flight leaving. I can’t get…”

He says, “I’ve spent enough money on that horse. Put him in a truck and drive him there.” 

They do that. He had lost a lot of weight. It was the big joke, “Here comes…”  Everybody’s been training all week, and here comes Cañonero II driving up in the back of a truck. And, when the race started, he settled very comfortably. They were in 18th position and there were 19 horses. He is really next to last. He stayed there and then he went outside, circling the entire field. He ran the distance —the same distance that you would have to run if you went to Cincinnati from Louisville, and he crossed the pacesetter at the wire, and he wins. He becomes a national hero in Venezuela.    

In those days the track gave the winning trainer a party, and people would kill to get into that party. First black trainer, nobody came. The jockey came and he ran back out and got all the Latinos, the groomers, the jockeys, the hot walkers and he brought them to the party. They turned it into some party. A number of trainers really resented Arias for racial reasons. And because he was an outsider. But I had struck up a friendship with him. We got to Baltimore for the Preakness, and he said to me, “What are they saying?” 

“They said that you trained the horse all wrong. You were lucky that it happened. You probably killed the horse the way that you raced him in that race. So far outside. They said that you can’t win anyway, because if you’re not setting the pace, you’ve got to be right up near the pace to win it here.” 

He said, “Don’t say anything to them, but I tell you… we will run wire to wire.” 

And they do. They took the lead and, boom, boom, boom. All of a sudden there is a horse with a crooked leg, a black trainer, a jockey who had to work like hell to stay on the horse and they are at the Triple Crown triumph mark. All they’ve got to do is win the Belmont.

Well, at the Belmont, the horse develops a case of thrush, which has been described to me as equine athlete’s foot. They wanted to scratch the horse, so the track came to them and said, “No, no, no. We need you.”

So Joey said, “I’ll run him.” 

I’ll never forget the day when that was the old Belmont, and I stood on the roof at Belmont, and looking down on the walking wing, which is beautiful there. He gets past the halfway point, and now he’s on the grandstand side and the waving Venezuelan flag are going absolutely nuts. Every Spanish speaking person, and that includes Panama, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic —they are going nuts. This is their horse. He lost the race, but Cañonero II became one of my all-time favorites. By the way, the horse is named after a rock singing group. Horses like that you have to love. 

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