He is a big colt of copper hue, bred in Kentucky, developed in Venezuela and destined for Valhalla—maybe. Already he has won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, become the darling of America's racing fans and established himself as the biggest hero in Venezuela since Sim�n Bol�var. Now he is only a mile and a half away—the Belmont Stakes' mile and a half—from winning the Triple Crown, a feat no thoroughbred has achieved since Citation.
Seldom has a horse story so enchanted the American public, or offered such enchanting elements. Canonero, the colt who was first sold for $1,200 and is now reportedly worth $5 million, has become an instant celebrity, and so has an astonishing trio of Venezuelans who are responsible for the achievements of their unlikely animal. The three—owner, trainer and jockey—speak no English, but they have brought to U.S. racing a word the turf Establishment won't soon forget: "VIVA!"
Nobody better understands the phenomenon of Canonero than Juan Arias, the colt's young trainer. "He is a horse of destiny," says Arias, a Latin romantic. "He is the champion of all the people—black and white, rich and poor, American and Venezuelan, everyone."
That Canonero will take the Triple Crown, last won in 1948, now seems likely enough. As Arias puts it, "All we have to worry about next week is a horse we haven't seen. If we run against the same horses we beat in the first two races, Canonero will win even more easily." And that being the case, it should be a relief to some of this country's stuffier horsemen to learn that the men behind Canonero are sound, experienced racing figures by anybody's standards.
"I have a right to be taken seriously, and so do my horse and my jockey and my people," says Arias, whose pride and dignity were offended by the belittling attitude taken by much of the U.S. press and many racing professionals, even after the Derby. "They say we are clowns. They say we are Indians because my horse gallops slowly, sometimes without a saddle. They come to look at my horse but turn away and wrinkle up their noses. Now I no longer have to justify myself. What can they say now?"
Canonero was bred in Kentucky by Edward Benjamin. His sire, Pretendre, was beaten by a neck by Charlottown in the 1966 Epsom Derby, and his dam, Dixieland II, was a winner at 3. The breeding is not all that bad, but he has a crooked leg and Luis Navas, a Venezuelan agent, was able to pick him up for only $1,200 at the 1969 Keeneland Fall Sales. Navas shipped the colt straightaway to Venezuela and just as quickly sold him to Pedro Baptista for 26,000 bolivars, which is about $6,000.
Baptista, 44, is the owner of Croma T, C/A (Chrome Everything), a factory in Caracas that produces a wide assortment of chrome products and furniture, including beds for the army. The business, started by Baptista's grandfather in 1901, was grossing $25,000 a year when Pedro went to work there in 1942. Now it does $1.5 million annually, and is the largest industry of its kind in Venezuela. "I used to work 18 hours a day," says Baptista. "Now I only work eight or 10."
One of the wealthiest men in Caracas, Baptista lives in a Castillo once owned by the dictator Marcos P�rez Jim�nez, who was deposed in 1958. Among the appointments of Baptista's home is his own private discoth�que in the basement. A stumpy, swarthy man with a scar on his nose and few teeth, Baptista is considered something of an eccentric in Venezuela. "You will see him in downtown Caracas and he looks like a bum," says a friend. "No tie, no teeth, unshaven, baggy suit. But he probably has thousands of bolivars in his pocket."
Baptista has owned horses since 1950, and at its peak his stable included more than 50 head, but now he races only about six. His introduction to ownership was hardly encouraging. "I bought nine horses," he says, "and none was a winner. That made me superstitious, so now I never race a horse in my own name." In Caracas he uses two hybrid names for his stable—Viglayape and Glalu, both made up from combinations of the first letters in his family's surnames. In the U.S. he has raced Canonero in the name of his son-in-law, Edgar Caibett, but Caibett not only owns no part of Canonero, he has never been present when the horse has run. "I am the sole owner," says Baptista.
After buying the colt from Navas, the first thing Baptista did was name him Canonero. A canonero is a group of people singing, accompanied by a small four-string guitar, a gourd and a regular guitar. At the Plaza de Bol�var in Caracas, the corner where the musicians gather is called el rinc�n canonero and this is where Baptista got the name. The colt has been listed as Canonero II on U.S. racing programs because there was an earlier Canonero here.