Julio Canani, a three-time Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer who came to America from his native Peru in 1954, died Friday morning at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California, according to his daughter, Lisa. He was 82.
The news was first reported by the Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman, who quoted friends as saying that Canani had been suffering from dementia and had recently contracted COVID-19.
He was 16 when he came to America, and worked for a landscape company before heading to the racetrack and taking a job with trainer Tommy Doyle. He took out his own license in 1968. He won the 1989 GI Santa Anita H. with Martial Law, the 1999 and 2001 GI Breeders’ Cup Mile with Silic (Fr) and Val Royal (Fr), and the 2004 GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Sweet Catomine, among numerous other top stakes races on the California circuit.
Val Royal’s owner, David Milch, based a character in his HBO series LUCK on Canani; the trainer Turo Escalante was played by actor John Ortiz.
Canani was remembered as a colorful, flamboyant character by those who worked with him. “His horses were well trained,” said Victor Espinoza, who won the GI Eddie Read H. at Del Mar in 2004 aboard the Canani-trained Special Ring. “I always knew they would be 100% going into the race. It was fun to work with Julio Canani.”
Fun, certainly–but Canani also wasn’t one to keep his feelings hidden, said Espinoza. “For me, that’s what I always liked about him, that he wasn’t afraid to share what he thought,” he added. “That’s how the old-school trainers were.”
Added veteran California handler Eddie Truman: “He was a Damon Runyon type, wasn’t he?”
Truman remembered Canani from his early days as a groom for trainer Hurst Philpot, when future handler Ross Fenstermaker was an exercise rider there.
“I don’t think either one could speak the other’s language, but they always knew how to go to the windows! He loved to gamble, boy that’s for sure. What a character, and what a horseman.”
Jeff Siegel raced horses with Canani dating back to Martial Law in 1989.
“He was very loose with the truth but in a good, funny way,” said Siegel. “I once had a first-time starter with him, and she was 30-1. I didn’t know too much about her. I said, ‘Julio, can she run?’ And he said, ‘not really–she’s a router not a sprinter. She’s going to need the race. Maybe down the road after she’s had a few races, she’ll be okay.’
“Anyway, she got beat a neck or something, and I was thrilled because I was cold-watered by the guy,” Siegel continued. “I told him I was delighted. He said, “I wasn’t–I’d singled her in the pick six.’ He couldn’t even tell me the truth! He was a very, very, very good trainer–especially good with fillies. He never really got the chance to have a big horse–I think he would have been great if he’d gotten that chance, but he lived a life that movies are made out of.”
Former jockey Corey Nakatani, who rode Sweet Catomine to victory in the 2004 Juvenile Fillies, describes Canani as “one of the last of the great horsemen.”
“He worked hard for what he got. He started life selling carrots and ended up a world class horseman,” said Nakatani. “We had a tremendous amount of success together. I believed in what he was doing and he believed in me.”
His career was forever tarnished in 2015 when he was suspended for 13 months for conduct detrimental to racing after a California jury found him liable for fraud over the sale of horses for owner Jeff Nielsen of Everest Stables, who was awarded over $80,000 in damages stemming from the suit. Canani trained Island Fashion (Petionville) for Nielsen. Canani applied for reinstatement in 2016, but was denied a license by the California Horse Racing Board.
According to Equibase, Canani’s runners won 1,137 races and $49,274,820 in earnings.
Divorced from his first wife, Jane, Canani is survived by their two children, Lisa and Nick, as well as his current wife, Svetlana and their two children, Isabella and Alexander. He is also survived by two grandchildren and one great grandchild.
There are no funeral services planned at this time, but the Canani family has requested donations be made to the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation.