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When Canonero II, the long-shot up-start whose home was Kentucky but is now Caracas, won the 97th Kentucky Derby, he may have answered the question of who is the best 3-year-old in this country. Or maybe not. In this Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico the Venezuelan horse, who stayed out of trouble in the Derby by running wide while the favorites spent their time bumping each other right and left in the crowded going, will have to prove it all over again. The Preakness, a 16th of a mile shorter than the Derby, is run over a track with tighter turns but will have a smaller field. The excitement will be in discovering whether the Derby winner can emerge as a true champion by taking two in a row up here. If he does not, everyone will assume, with some justice, that he lucked into his Derby victory when his rivals barged into each other on the final turn or ran out of gas down the long homestretch at Churchill Downs.
If the best 3-year-olds in the land were running against Canonero II at Pimlico the results might be more conclusive, but some of the best are not going to be around. Three of the first four in last Saturday's Withers mile at Aqueduct are skipping the Preakness, looking toward the Belmont, the final race of the Triple Crown, on June 5. The Withers was won by Bold Reasoning, now unbeaten in five starts and a colt who obviously loves sloppy going. The son of Boldnesian had no trouble whatsoever in the first stakes start of his career, picking up a two-length victory over Highbinder (who is Dr. Fager's kid brother) in a zippy 1:35[4/5] mile. Four lengths farther back came last year's Futurity winner Salem—the one going in the Preakness—while behind him in fourth place came the heavy favorite Good Behaving, who in his last three races had won the Swift, the Gotham and the Wood Memorial. The sloppy track did not make for the truest of races, but it did demonstrate that Good Behaving—who wasn't going to the Preakness in any case—is not invincible. And it proved again that the 1971 crop of 3-year-olds is a pretty mixed-up bunch.
Despite his Derby victory, Canonero II is not likely to go off as the favorite in the Preakness, since most racegoers tend to look upon his Louisville triumph as a freak. Others, however, like Robert Kleberg of the King Ranch, owner of Assault, the 1946 Triple Crown winner, and loser of a Derby bet on California-bred Unconscious, think better of the South American colt. "Canonero just might be one fine race horse," Kleberg says.
A more cautious, wait-and-see approach is to let Canonero II prove himself all over again this week, even though the odds are against him. Although bred in Kentucky and raced twice with moderate success at Del Mar, Calif. last summer, Canonero's home is the 3,000-foot-high La Rinconada track in Caracas. His pre-Derby record of four wins in eight races was lightly regarded in Louisville because Venezuelan opposition is not considered the best in South America (that honor goes to Argentina). It was not known in this country until after the Derby that he had already carried 130 pounds (four pounds more than the Derby weight) and had raced against seasoned 4- and 5-year-olds over a deep, sandy track that demands a colt be of stout heart and sound limb.
Now that these facts are known, it can also be recalled that horses coming to U.S. tracks from high altitudes often do well here their first time out—although not necessarily later on. The major example, as startling on the afternoon of Nov. 11, 1955 as Canonero's effort at Churchill Downs, was provided by the Washington D.C. International at Laurel. Fresh off a plane from Caracas came two long shots named El Chama and Prendase, and the invaders finished one-two in the mile-and-a-half event, beating such horses as Social Outcast, Mister Gus and Traffic Judge. To the best of anyone's recollection, El Chama and Prendase were never heard from again, at least not seriously.
Canonero II will have been on U.S. soil less than four weeks on Preakness Day. Most international horsemen feel that this is a "dangerous" period. In other words, the cumulative effect of the change in altitude, shipping, one race (even if the Derby wasn't a particularly hard one for the winner), then shipping again (by van from Kentucky to Maryland) could take some of the bloom off the colt's form. The validity of this diagnosis will not be known until late Saturday afternoon in Baltimore, when Canonero II and his able jockey Gustavo Avila finish navigating Pimlico's tight turns.
All in all, one would have to think the best chance in the Preakness belongs to Jim French, Bold Reason and Eastern Fleet, who finished second, third and fourth behind Canonero II at Louisville. Jim French was cut on three legs in the entanglement on the far turn at Churchill Downs that nearly brought down Impetuosity. Even so, he recovered to finish gamely and strongly and everyone knows by now that Jim French, whether running on one leg or four, is a tenacious fighter.
The Preakness distance should suit Jim French, as it should Bold Reason and Eastern Fleet. The latter, handicapped by post position No. 17 in the Derby, could improve vastly with a better break at the barrier. His stablemate, Bold and Able, will pass up the Preakness, as will Unconscious (now resting an ankle that may possibly have bothered him on the stretch turn at Churchill Downs), List and Twist The Axe. Impetuosity, says Trainer George Poole, will run in the Preakness only if the field numbers 13 or less. Of the Withers runners, Bold Reasoning (the confusion in names is unfortunate), Highbinder and Good Behaving are staying in New York, and none of the others except Salem deserve the trip to Pimlico. As for Salem, he has never run farther than the mile he was asked for in the Withers, in which he was beaten six lengths, and he has never won beyond seven furlongs. An unimpressive fifth in the Withers was Personality's full brother Your Excellency, whose passport to Pimlico had pretty much depended on finishing in the first three or four.
The day before the Withers the 1[1/16]-mile Preakness Prep was staged at Pimlico, and favored Executioner was a surprise loser by a nose to Sound Off, a gray son of the 1962 Derby winner Decidedly. Limit To Reason managed to finish third despite bad racing luck and indicated he finally might be returning to the form that ranked him second last year only to the crippled champion Hoist The Flag. All three of these colts are expected to go in the Preakness, possibly to be joined by the fourth-place finisher, Royal J.D.
The Preakness was picked one-two-three here a year ago, and it would be foolish to try to match that record. But it will be surprising if Canonero II, for all the wonderful excitement he brought to the 97th Kentucky Derby, is able to finish ahead of a hungry pack that includes Jim French, Eastern Fleet, Sound Off, Limit To Reason, Executioner and Bold Reason. It has been a topsy-turvy year—and that could hold even for a Derby winner.