By William Nack
By five o’clock in the afternoon of June 5, 1971, on a bright, brilliantly sunny day across Long Island, a record crowd of 81,036 souls, the largest ever to see a horse race in New York, had descended on Belmont Park in the fervent hope of seeing history made.
Canonero II, the bold-moving bay who had just swept the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, the colt who had begun the year running in complete obscurity at Rinconada Racetrack in Caracas, Venezuela, was right now parading into the paddock to be saddled for the Belmont Stakes. A victory would make him the first Triple Crown winner since Citation ran off with it here in 1948. In those far-off days of ‘71, I was a city-side reporter at Newsday, writing mostly about car wrecks and wetlands, but I’d misspent a good deal of my youth at various gambling salons around Chicago, mostly at old Arlington Park, and---like every admirer of the running horse---I had been waiting years for the return of the immortal Cy. On this day, I had a front row perch near the eighth pole, at the greatest racetrack on earth, to witness Canonero’s attempt to become the ninth winner of the Triple Crown.
From the clubhouse to the grandstand, from the tree-shaded paddock out back to the spacious aprons out front, the crowds squeezed into every cranny of the place; by the end of the afternoon, it appeared as though every Venezuelan horseplayer north of the Orinoco River was pressed around the wooden walking ring, many waving the tri-colored flag of Venezuela, of red, yellow and blue, and many more yelling in Spanish.
“Viva Canonero!” they shouted as the colt entered the paddock. “El campeon!”
This was not my first visit to watch history played out here. Two years earlier, I slipped away to see another Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Majestic Prince, try to turn a mile and a half into the Triple Crown. What I remember most about that day was the moment I first saw that colt as he came into the paddock---a gleaming chestnut who looked like a show horse and may have been the best-looking racehorse in history, right up there with Swaps and Eight Thirty. Equally unforgettable that day was the sight of a confirmed stretch-runner, Dike, taking the early lead in the Belmont because nobody else wanted it; Dike was three in front as he snored through first half in 51 seconds, the three quarters in 1:16 1/5, by which time half the grandstand had fallen asleep. Arts and Letters came on to win by 5 1⁄2 lengths over Prince following the quietest stretch-run in the annals of Belmont Park.
Now here was Canonero II trying to pull off the hardest trick in racing. Five weeks earlier, he had won the Derby by nearly four lengths after traveling so wide on both turns at Churchill that he had to be much the best to win. In the Preakness, defying all expectations, he roared into a head-and-head duel against the speedy Eastern Fleet and drew off to win in track record time. There were rumors afloat that the horse had missed two days of training and was suffering from the rigors of his campaign, but he looked striking as he came into the paddock, though not as striking as his Venezuelan trainer, Juan Arias, who was the only black man in a paddock filled with white people and looked like he’d just walked out of a Park Avenue haberdashery: bright blue jacket, pink shirt, white pants and white shoes.
I was standing outside the paddock, under the grandstand tote sign, as Canonero came by. The crowds around me were 15-deep, most of them Spanish-speaking, and they loosed a sudden roar that so startled the horse that he reared up and went into a fretful dance, his neck bowed and his brown eyes bulging. Minutes later his neck was in a lather as Arias, after lifting jockey Gustavo Avila aboard the horse, was seen whispering to his jock as they toured the walking ring a final time. What followed was among the greatest racetrack scenes I’d ever witnessed, with the horse parading out the tunnel to the track, the crowds lifting their tri-colored flags, drums beating as people danced in the aisles, hands waving, voices booming in that vast echo chamber of a grandstand.
In the end, of course, it was no use. In the end, after beginning to tire on the lead at the half-mile pole, a 34-1 shot, Pass Catcher, galloped past him, drew off to lead by five at the eighth pole, and then held off a fast-closing Jim French to win it by three-quarters of a length. Canonero faded to fourth, to voices silent, to flags furled.
Two years later, I was in the press box, covering the Belmont for Newsday, when Secretariat turned for home in front by 22, but that’s a whole other story---about how the long wait finally ended at Belmont Park. But I can still see that gorgeous bay horse strutting around that paddock with those tri-colored banners flying. Que momento! Y que caballo!
William Nack was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for nearly 25 years. He is the author of three books, including "Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance," My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood-Money and the Sporting Life" and "Sceretariat: The Making of a Champion."