05/13/2014 12:44PM

Book review: Triple Crown reads capture spirit of the season

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Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome embodies that sweetest of horse-racing tales: a dream come true. From humble origins, this blaze-faced beauty from the West is proof on four flying hooves that lightning doesn’t care where it strikes and that the dream of finding “the one” is accessible to anyone bold enough to envision it.

In this Triple Crown season come two racing books worth considering, both featuring Cinderella stories to inspire the dreamers among us.

“Canonero II, The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby’s Most Improbable Winner,” by Milton C. Toby. 143 pages. $19.99, softcover. The History Press.

America adores a good Cinderella story, and 43 years ago this month, the Triple Crown trail showcased one that would do the Brothers Grimm proud. Like California Chrome, Canonero II blew in from out of nowhere, unexpected in every way – pedigree, human connections, story line.

In 2011, author and equine law attorney Milt Toby took home the $10,000 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, horse racing’s equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize, for “Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby,” about the Derby winner disqualified for a positive drug test. He is back again this year with the tale of an ultimate underdog in Canonero II, the bolt-out-of-the-blue “Caracas Cannonball” who set the racing world spinning back in the spring of 1971.

Canonero II gave entirely new meaning to the word “bargain” at Keeneland’s 1969 September yearling sale, where the crooked-legged colt literally begged for a buyer before hammering out to a Venezuelan bloodstock agent at $1,200. The son of Pretendre and Dixieland II would eventually go into the books as one of the great auction steals of all time.

Marked up and resold to South American industrialist Pedro Baptista Sr., the colt was named Canonero (for musical street bands) and handed over to a boy formerly from the Caracas slums named Juan Arias. The colt showed ability above the ordinary for his part of the world, but nothing exceptional. Then Baptista had a dream – literally – that he would win the Kentucky Derby with the colt named Canonero.

Toby’s fantastical tale takes off from there. The cargo-plane trip filled with squawking ducks and chickens, depositing a ribby, exhausted, dehydrated colt into quarantine at Miami; the endless van ride to Churchill Downs, where language barriers loomed like Mount Everest; the long gallops with no saddle or stirrups; the “serious” works, invariably four or five seconds slower than fellow Derby entrants. Arias supposedly “talked” with his skinny colt – and the colt “talked” back. People laughed. No one at all took them seriously. Only being tossed into the ignorable mutuel field prevented Canonero II from being a 100-1 shot on Derby Day.

But on May 1, 1971, the Venezuelan contingent had the last laugh when Canonero II and jockey Gustave Avila flew from behind to score the easiest of victories in the 97th Kentucky Derby. Nobody saw it coming ... nobody except perhaps for Baptista, who had foreseen it in a dream.

The trajectory of Canonero’s life continued upward for a time before peaking, then beginning its long, slow descent. Alas, while his would not be a fairy-tale ending, this is surely a book worth savoring.

“Casual Lies, A Triple Crown Adventure,” by Shelley Riley. 251 pages, $15.99, softcover; $5.99, Kindle. For information: http://shelleyriley.com

He was an undersized, dull-coated May foal whom nobody wanted. She was a little-known trainer on the California fair circuit. Together, they would make history.

“Casual Lies” is Shelley Riley’s extraordinary memoir about her trailblazing months on the 1992 Triple Crown trail, for which she earned a finalist slot last month in the prestigious 2013 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award competition.

Riley relates the story of her chance first meeting with a nondescript bay Lear Fan colt at the 1990 Keeneland January sale of horses of all ages, just two hips before he was slated to enter the sales ring, of how their eyes met and “two destinies came together.” She bought the “muskrat look-alike” with the lovely head and playful attitude for just $7,500 and took him home to California, where together with her husband, ex-jock Jim Riley, she developed him over the next two years from stable pet into bona-fide racetrack star.

“Stanley,” as he came to be known around the barn, grew into a big, handsome, temperamental handful – at times explosive, impulsive, impetuous – “Mr. Volatility Incarnate,” Riley referred to him at one point. It soon became clear that the Thoroughbred officially registered as “Casual Lies” was more than your garden-variety racehorse – much more – but this slow-maturing, supremely talented colt would require endless patience and attention on the part of the Rileys as they taught him to relax and gain control of himself.

Casual Lies’s transition from ragamuffin baby, to promising runner, to major stakes winner, and ultimately to Triple Crown contender is chronicled here in detail, not unlike the “diary” Riley penned for Daily Racing Form in the weeks leading up to the 1992 Derby. Then, as now, she could take readers adeptly behind the scenes of what it’s like to have a horse at the center of a media firestorm – and Casual Lies was indeed in the midst of all that.

In 1992, a female trainer on the Triple Crown trail was a novelty; one coming from the fair circuit of Northern California, even more so. Despite the avalanche of negativity, she met the grinding media circus and criticism with grace, humor, gratitude, and wide-eyed awe leading up to racing’s biggest day. Though her beloved Casual Lies was given no legitimate shot by the experts – he would go off at 29-1 in the Derby and finish second – she continued to handle this nipping, cavorting, clothes-grabbing character like the 1-5 favorite he was in her heart.

Casual Lies is a love story ... the tale of a long-ago race of a lifetime, with a relevance that rings out loud and clear even now, 22 years later. It is about a woman and a very special horse who “dared reach for the impossible,” and how very close they came to attaining it.