May 2nd, 2017

Billy Reed: Sano's story just part of the Gunnevera tale

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor 

Billy Reed: Sano's story just part of the Gunnevera tale
Antonio Sano gives a kiss to his prize Derby horse Gunnevera

LOUISVILLE – The Kentucky Derby history book is brimming over with fascinating stories, but it’s safe to say there’s never been one quite like the harrowing tale surrounding Antonio Sano, the Venezuelan trainer who was kidnapped twice – once for 36 horrible days – before finally getting hooked up with Gunnevera, who will receive a lot of betting support in Saturday’s 143rd Run for the Roses.

So far the only horse from Venezuela to win the roses was Canonero II in 1971. He was shipped to the United States on a cargo plane that also included farm animals. He was so disdained by the betting public that his odds may have been 100 to 1 had he not been part of the parimutel “field,” where all the longshots were lumped because there could be only 14 betting interests in those days.

Owned by Edgar Battista, trained by Juan Arias, and ridden by Gustavo Avila, Canonero II circled the field in the turn for home and galloped down the stretch for a 3 ¾-length victory over Jim French. To say the crowd was stunned would be a gross understatement.

But nobody will overlook Gunnevera, who finished a troubled third in his last start, the April 1 Florida Derby. Sent off as the $1.10 to $1 favorite, Gunnevera broke poorly from his No. 10 post position and was taken immediately to the rail and last place by jockey Javier Castellano, a native Venezuelan who called Sano to ask if he could have the mount.

Nevertheless, Castellano guided Gunnevera through the traffic to finish a solid third to Always Dreaming, who figures to be virtually the Derby co-favorite with Classic Empire, last year’s 2-year-old champion by virtue of his victory in the Breeders Cup Juvenile.

The colt is owned by Peacock Stable, which consists of Venezuelan construction company owner Solmon Del Valle, his son-in-law Guillermo Guerra, and Miami businessman Jaime Diaz. On Sano’s advice, they bought him at auction for $16,000, which is incredibly cheap for a Derby contender, although considerably more than the $1,200 that Battista paid for Canonero II.

At one time, Sano was so successful in Venezuela that he was known as “The Czar of the Hippodrome,” the nation’s premier track. With more than 3,300 victories to his credit, he probably was one of the wealthiest men in his impoverished and crime-ridden homeland.

He never really thought about being kidnapped, even though he was aware that authorities have indentified at least 42 kidnapping gangs working in Venezuela. At least one of the gangs is dedicated to fixing races by kidnapping jockeys or their handlers.

The first kidnapping was no big deal, at least by Venezuelan standards. His car was hijacked and he was forced to withdraw money from various ATM machines. There is a name for this in Venezuela. It is “secuestro expreso,’ which means express kidnapping.

But then came that morning in 2009 when seven armed men kidnapped Sano and took him to a secret location where he was confined to a room that had no toilet, no running water, and no windows. After 36 days, he was released after Del Valle, his family and others scraped together 700,000 Bolivars, or approximately $320,000, in ransom money.

The kidnappers broke his bank account as well as his spirit.

“I know a lot of people who were kidnapped but usually for one or two days,” he told The Miami Herald. “Venezuela used to be the most beautiful country in the world, but it was too dangerous for me and my kids.”

So he left his stable of around 160 horses and his wife quit her job as an engineering professor. Packing up their three children, they first went to Italy, their ancestral home. But Sano decided he would start over again in South Florida, so they moved to Weston, home of a large Venezuelan community.

His friend Del Valle helped Sano start his new stable. Today he trains 54 horses and owns training titles from two different meets at Calder Park. But the horse of his dreams is Gunnevera. As he has frequently told interviewers, “I came here with zero, and now I have this incredible, beautiful horse.”

Like Canonero II, Gunnevera is a chestnut colt bred in Kentucky. His breeders, Brandywine Farm and Stephen Upchurch, sent the mare Unbridled Rage to the rookie sire Dialed In. He seems to like coming off the pace with a big kick down the stretch.

The best thing he may have going for him is Castellano, who has won the Eclipse Award for the nation’s best jockey for four consecutive years. Only days ago, he was selected to be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga, N.Y. All that’s missing from his resume is a Kentucky Derby victory, but he thinks Gunnevera might be his best chance.

“He has a great style and great skill,” Castellano said, “and he performs every single race. You have a feeling with that kind of horse that he can fit the Kentucky Derby.”

The same goes for his trainer. He surely has the resilience and courage of a Derby winner. Once you have spent 36 days at the mercy of kidnappers, saddling a horse in the world’s most famous race has to be a stroll in the park. 


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