He was orphaned at birth and bottle-fed by humans.
Now the young colt whose mother died shortly after giving birth is the favorite to win the Florida Derby on Saturday and a leading contender to capture the Kentucky Derby in May.
His name is Gunnevera and he is the 9-5 favorite to win the Florida Derby, Gulfstream Park’s signature race and a final steppingstone to the May 6 Kentucky Derby.
“Gunnevera acts like a pro, like an old horse,” said his jockey, Javier Castellano. “So far, nothing bothers him. He doesn’t react to dirt in the face. Some horses won’t get close when they get that kick-back. But everything he does comes so easily.”
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Life didn’t start out that way.
His mother, an older mare named Unbridled Rage, hemorrhaged shortly after the foaling.
“As mares get older, just like people, the arteries become weaker,” said Pam Robinson, Gunnevera’s breeder.
The staff at Robinson’s Brandywine Farm in Kentucky managed to keep her alive, though, and within a few days she was behaving like her old self again.
“She was acting completely normal,” Robinson said. “She was going outside with her foal. They were running around playing. She was happy and eating grass. And then, all of a sudden, bam, she drops dead. It was very unfortunate.”
Robinson suspects it was a heart attack.
Over the next several days, Gunnevera was bottle-fed his milk as the farm searched around for a nurse mare. Eventually, they found one, a Paint horse much like those seen in cowboy Westerns.
“They’re very easy going,” Robinson said. “They will accept another foal very well.”
Robinson said Gunnevera, even at an early age, was striking in appearance.
“He was very athletic, larger than average, good looking with a good disposition,” Robinson said. “He was curious.”
But his good looks only went so far. When he was put through the sales ring as a yearling, he brought just $16,000. Eleven horses at that auction were sold for seven figures, and the average price was $100,000.
“We were disappointed in the price,” Robinson said. “We thought he’d bring a lot more than that, but we’re in the business of breeding, so we can’t just accumulate them.”
Part of the reason was that Gunnevera was from the first crop of Dialed In, the 2011 Florida Derby winner who was yet unproven as a stallion. Another reason: Robinson said Gunnevera was the first or second horse through the ring, when fewer buyers were on hand.
“There was nobody there yet,” Robinson said. “We should not have sold him, probably.”
Gunnevera has more than exceeded his sales price. He has won $1 million in eight races, including a decisive victory in the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream when he rallied from last to win by nearly six lengths.
If he wins Saturday, he’ll add another $600,000 to his bankroll.
At the moment, he is listed as the second wagering choice (behind McCracken) in the Kentucky Derby futures pool. Another emphatic win Saturday could make him the post-time favorite when the gates open at Churchill Downs for the Run for the Roses.
First, though, he’ll need to overcome a poor outside post position in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, not to mention the other horses poised to take him on.
Among his chief threats: Three Rules, a front-running colt who has never finished off the board in seven races at Gulfstream and was third to Gunnevera in the Fountain of Youth, and Always Dreaming, who has looked impressive this spring but has never raced in stakes company.
Back in Kentucky at Brandywine Farm, they’ll be cheering for the colt they raised from a bottle and a nurse mare.
“He’s gone on and achieved great things, and we are elated,” Robinson said.
Field for Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park:
State of Honor
E. Plesa Jr.
Charlie the Greek