Milt Toby knows horses. From a background of showing hunters and eventers – working for The Blood Horse – a freelance photo journalist at the ’84 Olympics – and an attorney versed in equine law, when he sat down to write his first books, The Complete Equine Legal & Business Handbook and Ruffian, not only did he present facts he brought experience and passion to the printed word.
Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby – Milt Toby’s first book for The History Press won the Dr. Tony Ryan Award as the best book about Thoroughbred racing published in 2011 and an American Horse Publications Editorial Award as the best equine book of the year. It tells the story of the only Kentucky Derby winner to be disqualified for a medication violation and the subsequent legal wrangling that put the drug test result in question. Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky won an American Horse Publications Award as the best equine book of 2012. Noor was a champion who died in obscurity and was forgotten, until an ardent racing fan in California started an ambitious campaign to have the horse’s remains moved to Old Friends retirement farm in Kentucky.
His new book, Cañonero II: The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby’s Most Improbable Winner is scheduled for release in mid-February. Just weeks away, I tracked Milt down and wanted to know all about the book. I loved this horse.
What made you decide to write about Cañonero II ? What intrigued you most about the horse? “Two related things made Cañonero an interesting subject for me,” Toby said. “I knew bits and pieces of the story, mostly foggy recollections from press reports at the time, bolstered by columns written by Steve Haskin, who is Senior Correspondent for The Blood-Horse. Steve has almost single-handedly championed Cañonero’s memory over the years and he generously agreed to write the Foreword for the book. I recognized an interesting story that had never been told in its entirety and I enjoy the research that goes into a book like this.
“Second, Cañonero was an amazing racehorse that never got the credit he deserved because he was unlucky enough (if you can ever say a Derby and Preakness winner was unlucky!) to race at the start of the 1970s. That was an extraordinary decade and Cañonero got lost in the shuffle of Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. It was a story that needed to be told.”
Where were you on the days he won the Derby and the Preakness? Were you there? “I was wrapping up my animal science degree at the University of Kentucky in 1971, so I watched the Triple Crown on television. There was hardly any press coverage of Cañonero before the Derby. He was a Kentucky-bred who raced in Venezuela – reporters knew nothing about the horse and no one travelling with him spoke English. When Cañonero did get mentioned in the press it usually was to make jokes about the longshot who went to the track in the mornings with a big exercise boy who rode with no saddle or stirrups. I was as surprised as everyone else when he won the Derby going away. I was surprised again when he won the Preakness in track-record time. By the time I got on the Cañonero bandwagon, before the Belmont Stakes, he had some physical problems that cost him the Triple Crown.”
Any tidbits from the book you would like to share? “It was a minor miracle that Cañonero even made it to Kentucky from Venezuela. Misfortune plagued every step of the trip. Engine trouble forced one plane to turn back and a second flight was diverted to Panama on the way to Miami from Caracas. He spent four days in quarantine in stifling South Florida heat with no opportunity for exercise, and then faced a grueling van ride to Kentucky. He arrived at Churchill Downs a week before the Derby, exhausted, dehydrated and bedraggled, looking like anything but a Derby winner.
“Juan Arías, who trained Cañonero, did a masterful and highly unorthodox job nursing the horse back into racing condition with long, slow gallops rather than the usual speed work, but the trainer never received the credit he deserved. Part of the problem, I think, was Arías’s race. He was black, in an era when blacks generally were relegated to menial backstretch jobs, and no one knew what to make of him.”
Considering a hoof infection that was possibly the reason he did not win the Triple Crown, where do you rate him among the great Thoroughbreds in American history?
“That’s a difficult question. If Cañonero had faded into obscurity after winning the Derby, like longshots often do, it would be tempting to characterize him as just a good horse that got lucky on the first Saturday in May. But he proved that he could win from 20 lengths behind in the Derby, that he could switch gears and set a track-record in the Preakness, and that he could run a creditable race in the Belmont when he was not at his best. He set another track record as a 4-year-old when he defeated Derby winner Riva Ridge in the Stymie Handicap. I think he was one of the best horses of his generation, probably the best of all.”
How should Cañonero II be remembered? Not a horse that was written off as a yearling because of a crooked leg, but as….? “A horse that made dreams come true.”
I so agree. What a fitting tribute! If the story of Cañonero II sounds like it should be a movie, you’re right. Celestial Films owner Salomon Gill is producing and directing a feature-length film about the horse and his quest for the 1971 Triple Crown. Tentatively titled Viva Cañonero! – the film is scheduled for release late in 2014. Watch for it!
Orders for signed copies of Cañonero II: The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby’s Most Improbable Winner can be placed through the author’s website at: www.miltonctoby.com.
MaryAnn Myers is the Bestselling author of The Winning Odds Series about Thoroughbred Racing. She is a Thoroughbred owner, trainer, and advocate of the sport.