Antonio Sano was Venezuela's most successful thoroughbred trainer. Race after race, 3,338 times, his horses won as his reputation as the "Czar of the Hippodrome" grew.
Until he lost it all in the span of 36 agonizing days. Not at the track, but in a cell of a room that had no windows, no toilet, no running water. Sano was kept chained to a wall. Masked men would come and go, put a gun to his head and threaten to pull the trigger. He went hungry most days. Sometimes he was fed rice and chicken wings. He lost 40 pounds.
Sano was a victim of a kidnapping in Venezuela, which has one of the highest kidnapping rates in Latin America. The Caracas-based Venezuelan Observatory on Violence says there are at least 42 kidnapping gangs in operation, some working in league with the police, and the U.S. State Department has warned about the "brazenness" of the country's organized crime groups.
When Sano was released, he spent 10 days in the hospital, then he and his family moved to South Florida. He was broke from paying the ransom money. He had to start over at Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course, the czar reduced to a stable of two cheap horses and claimers.
But now, eight years after his family despaired of ever seeing him again, Sano is trainer of a phenomenal horse, a horse with his own redemptive story, a horse favored to win Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and regarded as one of the top two contenders for the Kentucky Derby crown in May.
Gunnevera, an orphaned colt that caught Sano's eye, was worth only $16,000 when Sano persuaded the owners of Peacock Racing Stables to buy him. A longshot no more, Gunnevera, who is a son of Dialed In, progressed under Sano's tutelage to a telling triumph at last month's Fountain of Youth stakes, where he galloped to a six-length victory.
He has got lots of fans in Venezuela and in Miami's Venezuelan community, where horse racing is very popular. Canonero II, nicknamed the "Caracas Cannonball," made his way to the 1971 Kentucky Derby via Miami aboard a cargo plane filled with farm animals. He won the Derby and the Preakness and remains a legend in Venezuela. Sano, jockey Javier Castellano and two of Gunnevera's three owners are natives of Venezuela. They hope to deliver some good news to a country devastated by its crumbling economy, food shortages and high unemployment.
"The second time I breezed him, I said, 'He's a champion' because he went right by the other horses with just a little encouragement," Sano said, imitating the clucking of an exercise rider's tongue. Sano, who has a soft-spoken, gentlemanly demeanor, stroked Gunnevera's nose as he discussed his attributes. "I liked the Unbridled line in his pedigree, that style, that height, the long stride and the endurance.
"He is for me the opportunity of a lifetime."
Salomon Del Valle, a construction company owner from Valencia, Venezuela, who owns the horse with son-in-law Guillermo Guerra and Miami businessman Jaime Diaz, who is from Spain, said Gunnevera is "the most clever horse I've met in 28 years working with Antonio."
"There's a pigeon in the barn that interacts with Gunnevera every day, sits on his back — I've never seen anything like it," Del Valle said. "When I went to see him on Monday, he stopped eating to interact with me."
Del Valle helped rescue Sano from his kidnappers in 2009 by delivering the ransom money — they had demanded nearly 700,000 Bolivars, about $70,000 — to a drop point in a vacant lot. Sano's family was only able to raise the money by cleaning out their savings, selling their cars and collecting donations from relatives and friends, including Sano's colleagues. Everyone from grooms to fellow trainers contributed.
Sano, 51, had been kidnapped previously, when his car was hijacked and he was forced to drive around to ATM machines and withdraw cash. In Venezuela, it's called secuestro expreso, express kidnapping.
"Now they're even going after children because they know that people will pay big money to save their kids," Sano's wife, Maria Cristina, said.
After her husband was abducted by seven armed men at 5:30 one morning as he left the house, she did not hear from his captors for 15 terrifying days. There was concern that Sano had been snatched by the "horse mafia," one of the gambling rings that has attempted to fix races by poisoning horses and kidnapping jockeys.
"All we know is they wanted a lot of money, more money than we had," she said. "Many people in racing helped me because many people love Tony.
"We waited and waited. We prayed and prayed. We were told they might cut off his fingers. He came back to us in terrible shape but he was safe."
Maria Cristina then repeated a plea she had been making for two years.
"I said, 'Tony, let's go. We can't live here anymore. It's a bad place,' " she said. "I cry for Venezuela."
Sano was reluctant to leave but the kidnapping traumatized him, and he says he will never go back.
"I know a lot of people who were kidnapped but usually for one or two days," he said. "Venezuela used to be the most beautiful country in the world but it was too dangerous for me and my kids."
His wife left her job as an engineering professor, he left his 160 horses. They packed up their three children and first went to Italy, the original home of their families. Sano's grandfather and father had been orange growers in Sicily before immigrating to Venezuela after World War II and finding jobs at the racetrack. They learned to be trainers.
But Sano felt he had a better chance of rebuilding his career in South Florida. They moved to Weston, a favored destination for many Venezuelans who fled their homeland. Del Valle helped him acquire horses for his barn. Within a year he had his first winner at Gulfstream — a claimer named Escorbit — and the trainer's title at the Calder and Tropical at Calder meets. Today, he trains 54 horses.
"I came here with zero, and now I have this incredible, beautiful horse," he said. "I dreamed maybe one day I would be at the Kentucky Derby. I hope Gunnevera can take me."