Where Unknowns Can Become Champions

Canonero II on his way to shocking the world at the Kentucky Derby
Canonero II came from Venezuela to shock the world at the Kentucky Derby.

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.

Take Bold Forbes, for example. You might as well. No one else wanted him.

He had been purchased as a yearling for a mere $12,000 and ran away with the roses. After winning the Derby, he was sold in syndication for more than four million dollars.

The most famous rags-to-riches 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 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 sports writer 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 at 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 awhile, 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’s this history of surprises – where the unexpected is an odds-on favorite to happen – that has created much of the glamour and mystique of the Kentucky Derby.

In 1915, a filly came to town and became the only lady ever to win the Derby. Her owner, Harry Payne Whitney – a member of the East Coast’s bluest bloods – said of the filly named Regret, “I don’t care whether she ever wins another race. She’s already won the greatest race of the world.”

Bubbling Over won the Derby in 1926 and never went to another race.

When Proud Clarion took the roses, it marked the first race the Thoroughbred had ever won.

The strangest irony of all, however, came in 1957. Three of the finest horses to ever run in Kentucky – Gallant Man, Round Table, and Bold Ruler – were all on the racing card.

No one dared bet against them.

None of them won.

Iron Liege did.

Yet Iron Liege never beat any of them again.

But then, he beat them the only time it mattered.

By all right, Gallant Man should have taken the victory, but, incredibly, the great Willie Shoemaker – and not even he had an explanation – misjudged the finish line and stood up, slowing his mount and allowing Iron Liege to thunder past.

Where did that horse come from?

Why is he still running?

Why is he wearing the roses?

Both Bold Ruler and Round Table went on to be named “Horse of the Year” for 1957 and 1958, respectively.

Iron Liege was never heard from again.

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.

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