Horse Racing

Gunnevera stamps himself as Derby contender

Gunnevera walks to the Winners Circle after winning the Fountain of Youth race with jockey Javier Castellano at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, March 4, 2017.
Gunnevera walks to the Winners Circle after winning the Fountain of Youth race with jockey Javier Castellano at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, March 4, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Antonio Sano moved to the United States out of fear.

He was kidnapped twice in his home country of Venezuela and held for ransom, at which point he decided enough was enough and brought his family to South Florida.

That was in 2010.

Come May, Sano’s journey could lead him to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. On Saturday, the trainer’s Gunnevera won the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

The 3-year-old colt — named for a town in Spain — stamped himself as a top contender for the Kentucky Derby with an impressive  5-3/4-length victory.

“I’m very proud,” Sano said. “I’m very emotional right now.”

It was a mixture of triumph and tragedy in Saturday’s 71st running of the major  1 1/16-mile stakes, a key steppingstone to the April 1 Florida Derby and May 6 Kentucky Derby.

As Gunnevera was trouncing a field of nine rivals, including heavy favorite Irish War Cry, Peruvian invader Huracan Americo broke down on the far turn and was vanned off. He was later put down humanly. His jockey, Edgar Prado, escaped injury.

In contrast, the winner’s circle was a sea of celebration.

“I am the happiest man on earth,” said Solomon Del-Valle, one of the colt’s owners, who was surrounded by dozens of friends and well-wishers.

Sano was the happiest of all.

Venezuela’s all-time leading trainer, Sano was kidnapped in 2009 and held for 36 days. Gambling rings have been known to kidnap jockeys in the country.

“Many times the kidnappers will cut their fingers off,” Sano’s wife, Maria Christina, told The Thoroughbred Daily News in December. “I was worried they would kill him because you have no idea what happened to him.”

Eventually, Sano was released when she met the kidnappers’ ransom demands.

“After they kidnapped me, I took my wife and kids and came here,” Sano told the racing publication. “It was very scary. Scary for me and my family.”

Sano set up a stable at Calder Race Course in 2010 and won his first U.S. race with a $10,000 claimer named Scorbit not long after. Over the past several years, Sano has emerged as one of the leading locally based trainers.

But Gunnevera could put him on the national map.

Sano, 54, bought the horse at Keeneland’s September yearling sale in 2015 for just $16,000 — a pittance in the Sport of Kings.

The big chestnut has more than made up for that initial investment. After winning his first race in July at Gulfstream, Sano shipped him to New York, where he won the Grade 2 Saratoga Special. That was followed by another win in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot in Louisiana.

In February, he finished second to Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull Stakes.

But he turned the tables on Saturday, surging past the front-runners at the top of the stretch and drawing off for an easy win under jockey Javier Castellano.

“He’s a 3-year-old horse, but he acts like a 6-year-old,” said Castellano, who is also from Venezuela. “He’s an old pro.”

Irish War Cry, the even-money favorite, finished a distant seventh after entering contention briefly in the final turn.

Now it’s on to the Florida Derby for Gunnevera, with a trip to the Kentucky Derby on the line.

“Castellano has never won the Kentucky Derby,” Sano noted. “For me, it’s the first time. This is the year.”

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