The Writing Traveler: Race of a Lifetime

Everyone believed Canonero II was hopelessly outclassed at the Kentucky Derby, but he shocked the racing world. Photo: WorthPoint

More than anything, the Kentucky Derby has been known to take unknowns and – in a period of two minutes – makes them famous.

We unknown writers love to see unknowns beat the odds and succeed.

It sometimes happens in life

It sometimes happens in publishing.

It sometimes happens in horse racing.

On that first Saturday in May, all eyes will be on the Kentucky Derby, the first and perhaps most critical leg of racing’s famed Triple Crown.

More than anything, however, the Kentucky Derby takes unknowns and – in a period of two minutes – makes them famous.

It takes paupers and makes them rich.

Caleb Pirtle III

The most famous rags-to-riches story belongs to Canonero II. The young thoroughbred was sold originally for a paltry $1,200 and carted off to race in the high mountain country of Venezuela.

When Canonero II showed up at the Kentucky Derby, no one had heard of him.

He was just taking up space.

He didn’t belong.

He had spent forty-eight hours stuffed in the back of a plane while in quarantine in New Orleans. His owner couldn’t afford a plane, so Canonero II had been trucked to Louisville in a van, arriving sore and stiff and without the benefit of a prep race at either the Woods memorial in New York or the Bluegrass Stakes in Lexington.

What’s worse, the press ridiculed him. One sportswriter said he was a better bet to fertilize the roses than wear them. Some said the horse was overweight, and some swore he had lost too much weight.

What chance did he have?


In his last race in Venezuela before heading to Kentucky, the horse had finished third. He would be, the Caracas newspaper wrote, “Hopelessly outclassed goes to Churchill Downs.”

In the Derby, Canonero II was nothing more than a field horse, his name lumped together with five other losers at the betting window.

His was a name that didn’t count.

He was ignored.

And overlooked.

He broke from the gate, hung back for a while, suddenly swung wide, which was an unpardonable sin, came charging from the backdoor of nowhere, and stormed his way to the winner’s circle.

As Ted Bassett, the president of Keeneland at Lexington, pointed out: “A week before the Derby, Cannonero II couldn’t have been sold for ten thousand dollars. Yet six weeks later, the King Ranch in Texas bought him for a cool million.”

It seems that if thoroughbreds have one great stretch drive bred into them, they find it on Derby Day. And that’s why thoroughbreds can take several thousand people for a ride on the same day and at the same time.

Without warning or fanfare, legends are born under the sign of the dollar.

At Churchill Downs, the unknowns, all of us, have a champion.

And two minutes can last a lifetime.

Many of my travel stories have been collected in Confessions from the Road. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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