05/02/2017 4:40PM

Sano, Gunnevera put tragedy behind them on path to Kentucky Derby

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Antonio Sano will make his Kentucky Derby debut with Gunnevera, a $16,000 purchase at Keeneland. The colt has won three graded stakes and banked $1.17 million.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – He has had about seven years to regularly practice his English, but after he speaks for a while outside his native tongue, Spanish, you can hear Antonio Sano wearying. He sprinkles in a “si” here, a “pero” there, casts for the right word, but continues on gamely, trying to describe how he came to Churchill Downs last week from Florida with a horse named Gunnevera.

It is quite a tale.

Sano, 54, is a native Venezuelan. He comes from a family of horsemen – grandfather, father, uncle – and became a champion trainer in Venezuela after taking out his license in 1988. Venezuela’s racing industry used to be healthy, as did the country itself, fat on oil revenue. But as oil prices fell, so did Venezuela’s economy, and the country descended into chaos and criminality.

Venezuela has been called the kidnapping capital of the world – and Sano was swept up in it. Twice Sano was kidnapped, the first time briefly, the second time, in 2009, for a harrowing 36 days. His family and friends cobbled together ransom money to gain his release. Finally freed, Sano decided he could stay in Venezuela no longer. He closed his stables and emigrated.

“I didn’t really stop training at all,” Sano said. “After my kidnapping, I go one month in the U.S., then back to Venezuela to pick up my son and my wife.”

Sano, like many Venezuelans the last several years, wound up in South Florida. Mere months after being held prisoner by a kidnapping gang, he had set up shop in March 2010, trying to rebuild from the ground up.

“In Venezuela, my barn was 165 horses,” Sano said. “When I arrive in United States and start training, no horses – zero.”

But Sano, a trainer of such high repute at home, still had owners willing to support him. He claimed two horses, then a few more, and by the end of 2010 he had amassed 37 winners from 218 starters, a fine 17 percent strike rate.

In 2011, Sano won 75 races, and his owners began sending him to various American horse sales, seeking equine prospects at auction rather than through the claim box. Four years later, at Keeneland’s massive September yearling sale, Sano picked out such an animal for a mere $16,000. The chestnut colt by the young stallion Dialed In was tall and lanky, a type Sano likes. He would be named Gunnevera by the Peacock Stable of Salomon Del Valle, Jaime Diaz, and Guillermo Guerra. And after winning the Saratoga Special, the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot, and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes (his purse earnings already stand at $1.17 million), Gunnevera has taken his forced-immigrant trainer to the pinnacle of the sport – the Kentucky Derby.

“All Venezuelan guys with horses are fans of the Kentucky Derby – jockeys, owners, trainers, they’re all thinking about the race,” Sano said. “They’re all excited about this horse. This horse, it’s a very big gift to Venezuela with the situation there now. I am very proud of this moment. I think I hope many times for a chance to be in the Derby, and this year is the right moment. It’s a beautiful experience.”

Venezuela became forever linked with the Kentucky Derby when the Venezuelan horse Canonero II, who was part of the mutuel field, scored a huge upset in 1971. Last year, Majesto, trained by Venezuelan Gustavo Delgado, made the Derby but failed to make an impact.

The Venezuela training scene, said Sano, is not all that different from the United States’s, and lessons learned over a lifetime still applied in this country. Sano said he grew up around the stables and served as an assistant trainer for 5 1/2 years while at university earning a degree in engineering.

“All the time my mom would say, ‘You need the college,’ so I said, ‘Okay, okay, I need the college,’” Sano said. “I go to university for engineering, but I still like the horses. When I studied for engineering, at the same time, I was studying for training.”

There are three racetracks in Venezuela; Sano raced at all of them, but was based at Valencia. The two main differences from U.S.-style training, Sano said, are the large sets of horses that go to the track to train – groups of 10 or more – and the fact that grooms also serve as the exercise riders. There are more riders in the Venezuelan stables, but fewer employees.

“In Venezuela it’s very expensive, the food,” Sano said. “Here, it’s very expensive, my payroll.”

What wasn’t especially expensive? The $16,000 yearling Gunnevera, who had his own troubled history with which to deal.

Gunnevera was born Feb. 28, 2014, at Brandywine Farm in Paris, Ky., foaled by the 19-year-old mare Unbridled Rage. Gunnevera was a healthy foal, but Unbridled’s Rage experienced complications while giving birth and hemorrhaged. Ten days later, she died, probably of a heart attack. Gunnevera was raised by a nurse mare named Jenny, though he was too young to have any concept of his own personal tragedy.

“He was probably extra spoiled,” said Pam Robinson, who owns Brandywine with her husband, Jim. “He was always at the gate wanting to be played with – almost like a big puppy dog.”

Gunnevera lost his first two starts, graduated third out in a Gulfstream maiden race, then boldly was sent to Saratoga by Sano, whose confidence was rewarded in the Saratoga Special. The colt ran below his best form finishing fifth in the Breeders’ Futurity last October at Keeneland, but has run nothing but good races since.

In the Fountain of Youth, Gunnevera and his regular rider, Venezuelan native Javier Castellano, flew home from last of 10 to win in a romp. Gunnevera, looked less effective finishing a well-beaten third last out in the Florida Derby, but Gunnevera broke from a poor outside post and never really had a chance to get near the pace-pressing winner, Always Dreaming.

“When my horse for the Florida Derby drew post 11, I said right away, ‘No chance,’” Sano said. “Two things: The post position no good, and on the day, the track was very fast. I lost a lot of lengths, and it was impossible with the track so fast for the closers to run. For me, I’m very happy with the race.”

With the Kentucky Derby spotlight shining brightly, Sano has repeated his story now to dozens of inquiring reporters. The man from the kidnapping capital of the world has become “The Kidnapped Trainer” in the annual Derby narrative. Sano keeps the details of that fading event to himself. Behind his gentle and gentlemanly bearing one senses scars that won’t ever fully fade.

“For me, it was very bad after I first came to the United States,” Sano said. “I was driving in my car to the mall, to the track, and I just start to cry, remembering what had happened. It was bad.”

His psychological health, Sano said, has improved considerably. Horses have been his life, and they have helped him get his life back again, and early Saturday evening at Churchill Downs, Antonio Sano could find himself standing next to a tall chestnut draped with a blanket of roses.

– additional reporting by Nicole Russo