A kidnapped trainer, an orphaned colt and the chance of a lifetime

Venezuelan horse trainer Antonio Sano greets his racehorse, Gunnevera, as he's walked after a workout early morning on March 29, 2017, ahead of the upcoming Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Sano was kidnapped in Venezuela and started a new life in South Florida. (C.M. Guerrero/El Nuevo Herald/TNS)
Caption
Venezuelan horse trainer Antonio Sano greets his racehorse, Gunnevera, as he's walked after a workout early morning on March 29, 2017, ahead of the upcoming Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Sano was kidnapped in Venezuela and started a new life in South Florida. (C.M. Guerrero/El Nuevo Herald/TNS)

Credit: C.M. GUERRERO

Credit: C.M. GUERRERO

Trainer Antonio Sano never expected to be here, having escaped Venezuela after being kidnapped twice.

The same can be said about a strapping foal who became an orphan shortly after his birth when his mother dropped dead.

Yet, here they are at the Kentucky Derby, looking to fulfill an impossible dream with improbable storylines.

Sano found the colt and bought Gunnevera for his clients for $16,000, mere pennies in the horse industry.

But this tale began years before that.

Sano had acquired quite a reputation as a trainer in Venezuela. He got his first horse in 1988 and by the time he left 11 years later he had won 3,338 races and remains the country's all-time leading trainer.

But life on the backstretch is tough in Venezuela. A so-called "horse mafia" has been known to kidnap jockeys and in one case drug a beloved favorite to alter the outcome of a race.

Rio Negro, a heavy favorite in the Army Day Derby, was injected with a near-fatal dose of cortisone in order to compromise the horse's performance and allow those in the know to win more money on a shot that previously wasn't as long.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence says there are more than 40 kidnapping gangs in the country, some which work with police.

The first time Sano was kidnapped it was a low-grade "secuestrado expreso," or "express kidnapping," where the victim is driven around the city and asked to empty out their bank accounts at as many ATMs as they can. He was captive only a couple hours.

But on July 23, 2009, seven armed men emerged from an SUV in front of his house at 5:30 a.m. They dragged him into the vehicle and sped away.

He was held for 36 days, most of them spent in a room with no window, no toilet and no running water. He was shackled to the wall.

Sano's wife, Maria Christina, got as much money as she could, sold assets and called upon the kindness of relatives, horse owners, trainers, jockeys and even grooms.

He lost 40 pounds while in captivity and was hospitalized for 10 days upon his release.

Sano has never disclosed the ransom amount but colleagues put it at 700,000 Bolivars, which is about $70,000.

Kidnapping "is very common," Sano said in an interview conducted in Spanish. "But I don't want to talk about it. For me, it's a very difficult story.

"There are a lot of problems in Venezuela. It's very dangerous right now. To see this happen to the country, it's very sad for me. I'm not going to go back."

Sano, now 54, never raced in Venezuela again. Maria Christina, an engineering professor, insisted it was time to move. They initially went to Italy, from where their families emigrated, but the horse racing industry there is in disarray.

Next stop was South Florida.

He saddled his first horse at Gulfstream on April 3, 2010. He had his first winner that same day.

His stable has grown to about 50 horses, one of them called Gunnevera, named by co-owner Jamie Diaz Mengotti after a small town in Spain.

Pam and Jim Robinson, owners of Brandywine Farm in Paris, Ky., wanted to know more when they learned Dialed In, a winner of the Florida Derby, was going to stand stud at Darby Dan Farm, about a half-hour away in Lexington.

They bought two lifetime breeding rights to the stallion.

Unbridled Rage was given one of those rights.

"She produced a big strong colt when she was 19," Pam Robinson said. "But she hemorrhaged shortly after delivering the foal. We got it under control within three days. She was completely normal.

"But when the foal was 10 days old, the mare died of a heart attack or an aneurism."

The people at Brandywine went into 24-hour-a-day triage, hand feeding the foal every hour. But, having humans raise a foal is not the best option.

"Orphan foals that end up hand raised are more likely to have behavioral issues, which is why people bring in nurse mares," said Camie Heleski, an expert in horse behavior and welfare, where she teaches in the University of Kentucky's equine program.

The controversial practice of nurse mares involves keeping mares constantly pregnant so their milk can be available to Thoroughbred mares who have either rejected their foal or, in this case, died.

This is where Jenny, a paint, stepped in for Unbridled Rage.

Heleski says, in most cases, the mare's bond with the foal is extremely strong.

"But from a foal's perspective, I've seen a fair number of cases where hunger overrides the feeling of missing their mother," Heleski said. "The foal seems to take on a new mare with less resistance than a new mare taking on a new foal."

Robinson said the foal bonded quickly with Jenny.

"The horse needs to be raised as a horse, by a horse, not by a human," Robinson said.

Although she admits to a little bit of spoiling after his mother died.

"He was a friendly foal to begin with," Robinson said. "Everyone was hugging him. He was a big puppy dog for a couple of days."

When it was time to sell the horse as a yearling, expectations were high but reality stepped in. The colt sold for a meager $16,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September Sale.

"We knew he was a nice horse, nice foal, nice yearling," Robinson said. "It was extremely disappointing. But he was either the first or second horse in the ring near the end of the sale. Basically, there was nobody there. Everybody was late."

Sano, buying for Peacock Stables, happened to be on time that day.

"It was a heck of a bargain," Sano said. "Thank God, luck was on our side. It was a great deal."

Gunnevera ran his first race on June 10 at Gulfstream. He finished second. He broke his maiden in his third race about a month later.

He won his first stakes race, the Saratoga Special, in his next race after shipping to New York.

He finished fifth to Classic Empire the following race, the Breeders' Futurity Stakes at Keeneland, a points-bearing Kentucky Derby prep.

He bounced back with a win in the Delta Downs Jackpot, a race won the previous year by Exxagerator, winner of last year's Preakness.

He moved down to Gulfstream, where he finished second in the Holy Bull, won the Fountain of Youth, and then took a game third in the Florida Derby.

Gulfstream has a very short run to the first turn, making it extremely difficult for slow-breaking horses on the outside to get into the race without great difficulty.

Gunnevera was in the 10 hole and jockey Javier Castellano made a quick angle to the rail.

Robinson, watching on television, called it "the hypotenuse of the triangle."

His late speed should make him one of the more popular horses as the Derby field of 20 stretches out to 1 \ miles for the first time.

Robinson doesn't plan to go to the race.

"We haven't been invited," Robinson said. "We'll watch on a nice big-screen TV with surround sound. Hopefully, we'll be up on our feet jumping up and down."

Sano will be nervously watching from the owner's box on the front stretch at Churchill Downs.

"This is the first time in my life that I'll have a horse in the Kentucky Derby," Sano said. "It's very emotional. It's everyone's goal. ...

"This horse has a lot of heart."

Just like his trainer.

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