Surprise Derby winner topic of new book

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For as long as he can remember, Milt Toby has always been involved in some aspect of the horse industry. Intending to become a veterinarian, he eventually decided upon a different course and began writing about the horse racing industry.

“My family had a large stable of American Saddlebreds that I showed as a kid,” said Toby, 64. The Taylor County native intended to go to veterinary school, but I was more enthusiastic about going than the vet schools were about having me as a student.”

That’s when he changed the direction his career was going in and started writing about horse racing. “Forty years later, I’m still writing about horses,” he said.

He has recently released Canonero II: The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby’s Most Improbable Winner. He will be giving a program about the book on April 17 at 6:30 p.m. in the Rob Morris Educational Building on the campus of the Oldham County History Center. Light dinner fair will be included as well as a cash bar and Toby’s book will be for sale. Reservations are required for this History Press Author Dinner Series program.

Toby said it took a year to put the book proposal together for his publisher, The History Press, and to get final approval of the manuscript. “Research, writing and rewriting, which for me move along at the same time, took about six months.”

He wrote the book because, “I’m intrigued by stories that people think they know, but really don’t. Cañonero II’s story is one of those.”

Born in 1968 with a noticeably crooked foreleg, Canonero II went on to become a Venezuelan champion thoroughbred race horse who may be best remembered for winning the first two legs of the 1971 U.S. Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. In the Derby’s 20-horse field, Canonero II shocked everyone by coming from 18th place to fly past the competition, easily winning the race by 3 3/4 lengths.

The third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, was held near New York City and was run before the largest crowd in its history. The stands were filled with members of the city’s large Latino community, who were there to cheer on their new hero.

What the fans didn’t know was that Canonero II had been bothered by a foot infection for several days. Early in the race he took the lead, but struggled to cross the finish line in 4th place. Even though he lost the race, Canonero II was named the winner of the 1971 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Three-Year Old Male Horses.

“Just about everyone ignored this horse and his Spanish-speaking trainer, Juan Arias, before the 1971 Kentucky Derby. But his come-from-behind win in the Derby and his record-setting victory in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later established him as one of the best horses of his generation. That’s the story that people know,” said Toby.

“What they don’t know is the back story, that no one wanted Cañonero II as a yearling, that his Venezuelan owner wanted to run in the Derby because of a dream, that the horse survived a horrendous trip from Caracas to Churchill Downs and that he went into the Derby after a secret, early morning workout that no one knew about.”

Toby knows the ins and outs of racing. He has been writing about Thoroughbred racing since 1972, first as a member of the editorial staff of “The Blood-Horse” magazine, and later as freelance writer. He has traveled to China, Costa Rica and Colombia working as a freelance news photographer. Toby also has a law practice and teaches a course in Equine Commercial Law at the University of Louisville every spring.

He lives in Central Kentucky with his wife Roberta, who is an equine veterinarian. Two previous books he wrote for The History Press have won national awards. Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby, won the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for the best book about Thoroughbred racing published in 2011 and was recognized by American Horse Publications as the best equine book of that year. Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky, was American Horse Publication’s 2012 equine book of the year.

Toby said he hopes his audience will, “come away with a better understanding of how good Cañonero II really was. He got lost in a decade that produced three Triple Crown winners, and in that company it’s easy to overlook a horse that almost won a Triple Crown.”

He went on to say that, “I also hope people will appreciate the special relationship between Cañonero II and his trainer, Juan Arias. He never received the credit I think he deserved for a masterful training job. He was a “horse whisperer” before anyone knew what that term meant.”

Oldham County’s Tie to the Kentucky Derby

Dark Star was the 1953 winner of the Kentucky Derby. He was foaled in 1950, sired by Australian stallion Royal Gem, at Hermitage Farm in Oldham County. The thoroughbred racehorse was owned by breeder and Hermitage Farm owner, Warner Jones.

Jones sold the horse at the Keeneland sales to philanthropist and industrialist Harry Frank Guggenheim for $6,500. Dark Star raced in the colors of Guggenheim’s Cain Hoy Stables.

In the 1953 Derby Dark Star started at odds of 25/1, with Native Dancer (unbeaten in eleven races), going off the 3/5 favorite. This race attracted a huge television audience, with three-quarters of American viewers tuning in to the coverage. His jockey was twenty-three-year-old Hank Moreno.

It took a horse of exceptional talent to hold Native Dancer, and finally triumph over him. Dark Star’s Derby victory over Native Dancer is considered to be one of the biggest upsets in Derby history. Dark Star beat him literally by a nose, the only horse to ever beat Native Dancer. Many in the industry said his strong point was his stride and his light weight.

His rematch with Native Dancer in the second leg of the Triple Crown was much anticipated. In the Preakness Stakes, Dark Star led in the early stages and appeared to be going well until three-eighths of a mile from the finish, when he weakened abruptly and finished fifth to Native Dancer. It was later learned that Dark Star had sustained a serious tendon injury to his right foreleg, which ended his racing career.

Dark Star retired to stand at stud in the United States. In 1967, he was sold to Haras du Bois-Roussel in Alencon, France. Dark Star was the sire of Hidden Treasure, the 1961 Canadian Horse of the Year.

Tickets for Milton C. Toby’s program are $15 for members and $18 for non-members. For more information or to make reservations please contact the Oldham County History Center at (502) 222-0826 or info@oldhamcountyhistoricalsociety.org.

Helen E. McKinney can be reached at (502) 222-0826 or helen@oldhamcountyhistoricalsociety.org.

Email us about this story at publisher@oldhamera.com.