Kentucky Derby Question – one and a quarter mile distance?

Kentucky Derby winning jockeys Laffit Pincay and Pat Day joined Gustavo Avila Jr. and his family at 'Gallop to Glory' ceremony

Kentucky Derby Questions FAQs

Kentucky Derby Tours gets lots of questions each year about the Kentucky Derby. We thought we would share some of the questions and our answers on our blog. Here goes…

Is it true that the Kentucky Derby is the first time any of these horses ever attempt the mile and a quarter distance?

Not necessarily, very few people knew that Canonero II had run and won at the Kentucky Derby distance already, or they might have put their two bucks on him at Churchill Downs in 1971. What’s more, he ran it on a deep track and at elevation 3,000 feet, in Venezuela where he came from. His South American record was six wins out of ten races (and three thirds) when he arrived to chase the roses. After winning the roses at the Kentucky Derby, he also won the black-eyed susans at the Preakness Stakes in Maryland. He had a cold and some other ailments at the Belmont but managed to hold on to fourth. Canonero II later returned to his native Venezuela, where he died in 1981.

In 2009, Kentucky Derby winning jockey Gustavo Avila Jr. joined Kentucky Derby Tours to come back to Louisville, Kentucky. Gustavo, his wife Carmen, daughter Jennifer and grandson Miguel spent the week enjoying the sights and sounds of the Derby. Gustavo joined other Kentucky Derby winning jockeys and put his signature in cement at the ‘Gallop to Glory’ exhibit at the Galt House Hotel on the riverfront in Louisville. He also signed the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby Museum. We were able to reunite Gustavo with a local trainer, Jose Rodriquez who helped the Venezuelan crew during that 1971 Kentucky Derby week. Canonero II was and is still a national treasure in Venezuela.

Canonero II paid $19.40 to win the Derby in 1971, but only because he was part of the mutual field. In the 1970s, the equipment used to conduct wagering could handle only 12 betting interests in a race. That meant that only the best 11 horses in the race could be bet on individually, and the remaining Kentucky Derby horses were grouped together. A bettor playing the field cashed in if any of the horses in the group won. Canonero II, one of six horses in the mutuel field that year, would most likely have gone off at odds higher than 91-1 had he been a sole betting interest. Even racing experts in his home country were convinced he had no chance in the Derby. A Caracas newspaper declared that Canonero II would be “hopelessly outclassed” in the Derby.

All the naysayers were certainly surprised at the results of the 1971 Kentucky Derby!