From Gulfstream Park
The mere mention of 1971 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes hero Canonero II to most horsemen from Latin America immediately invokes pride.
Trainer Dante Zanelli Jr. is no different, and he has a healthy respect for the achievements of the Venezuelan star who swept the first two legs of the American Triple Crown. He's just not ready to compare his charge, Jetset Racing's Tomcito, to the legend.
“There's no comparison. They were two different horses,” said Zanelli while overseeing Tomcito schooling in the paddock at Gulfstream Park. “It was a different case for Canonero, because (his connections) knew what they had. That might be the case for our horse, but we're in a different place.”
A 3-year-old son of Street Cry, Tomcito won Peru’s Derby Nacional (Per-I) at 1 1/2 miles last out Nov. 17, and is on course to make his first start in the United States in the $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I) March 29 at Gulfstream.
Tomcito is 4-for-5 with his only loss a second-place finish in the Peruvian 2,000 Guineas. As a Kentucky-bred, the colt was racing in Peru against horses bred in the Southern Hemisphere with several months more development under their belt.
It was the rough equivalent of a high school athlete competing against a college athlete. Now the question for Zanelli and his owners is, how good were those college athletes?
“We need to see where he is,” Zanelli said. “He's been working steadily since we got him here and our goal has been to get him as ready as we can for a race like the Florida Derby. We're almost there.”
Zanelli's respect for Canonero notwithstanding, there are some similarities between his horse and the son of Pretendre, who proved to be no pretender when he came within lengths of ending a 22-year drought of American Triple Crown winners.
Canonero sold for $1,200 as a yearling at the 1969 Keeneland Fall sales, going through the ring with a split hoof and a case of worms. After shipping to Venezuela to owner Pedro Baptista, he grew stout under the care of Juan Arias and developed a long stride.
Tomcito was a modest $7,500 purchase at the 2006 Keeneland September yearling sales, ignored by many with ungainly, wide-set front legs. Zanelli picked him out for casino owners Polo and Omar Monti, clients that have been racing with his extended family in Peru for two generations. Under his care, he, too, has grown to a similar size as Canonero, around 16 hands.
“He (Tomcito) had this really nice stride,” Zanelli said. “He was a little wide in front, and he's a little wide with the way he walks, but when we brought him to the racetrack he really started to stretch out. He covers a lot of ground.”
After a troubled trip getting to the U.S., Canonero swept from behind in Louisville to win by 3 3/4 lengths under Gustavo Avila. Thoughts of a “fluke finish” disappeared quickly when he rolled to victory in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) in track record time.
Thousands poured into Belmont Park three weeks later, many from New York's Hispanic communities coming to cheer a horse described by Arias as the 'Champion of the People.'
Canonero had lost some training time that week with a foot problem and when the gates opened, the keyed-up colt rushed to the lead. Turning for home, Canonero faded to fourth while longshot Pass Catcher with Walter Blum aboard went on to the victory.
Canonero still earned that year's 3-year-old championship and after being sold to King Ranch and sent to trainer Buddy Hirsch, he returned the next year to win the Stymie Handicap over 1972 Kentucky Derby winner Riva Ridge.
Zanelli was raised on the exploits of Canonero. He knows it's been 37 years and only a handful of horses have emerged from South America to reach the highest levels in the U.S. over that time. He prefers to emphasize the accomplishments of Tomcito to this point rather than hope too much that his horse is ready to take up Canonero's mantle.
“It's like comparing anything over different eras,” said Zanelli. “The technology is so different and the methods are so different at this point. I like to point out that 51 horses went to Peru two years ago from the U.S. Only three of them made the classics down there and only one of them won.”