CRAWFORD | After kidnapping, Venezuelan trainer's Derby bid offers hope to his homeland
Trainer Antonio Sano has endured two kidnappings in his native Venezuela, rebuilt his training career, and has Gunnevera headed into Saturday's Kentucky Derby in an incredible tale of perseverance.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — When they make a movie of Venezuelan thoroughbred trainer Antonio Sano’s life — as surely they must — it might begin with one of the most successful horse trainers in his nation, chained to a wall in a roofless room, no windows, no doors, and dwindling hope.
That was Sano’s life for 36 harrowing days in 2009. On the morning of July 24, he left his family’s home in Valencia and a sport utility vehicle intercepted him, seven men springing out of the doors. They smashed his windshield, dragged him from his car and into captivity, hoping for a ransom.
It wasn’t the first time Sano had been kidnapped. Months earlier, he had been taken hostage in his own car for most of an afternoon, being forced to withdraw money at one ATM after an another until the kidnappers were satisfied.
This time, it would take much more time, and much more money, before he was free.
That the same tragic story could include Sano today, outside Barn No. 41 on Churchill Downs’ backside, smiling for pictures with fans or admirers of his colt Gunnevera, a contender Saturday for the Kentucky Derby, is something endearing about this sport, which fades out of public consciousness for long stretches, but flares up each spring with stories you can barely believe.
Just when you think you’ve heard it all, Sano tells you about his captivity, how sometimes the only water he got while chained was if it rained. Sometimes they gave him food, mostly rice or chicken wings. Most of the time they didn’t. He lost 40 pounds. He didn’t know where he was.
The worst part was when his kidnappers would enter his cell, masked, and put a gun to his head, threatening to kill him.
“Big guns,” he noted.
He said he came to believe that he would not be killed, that they wanted ransom money for him more than anything.
“They told me, they need me alive,” Sano said. “You’re dead, no money. They wanted money.”
Still, as time passed, and the threats continued, it couldn’t have been easy. It certainly wasn’t easy for his family, which didn’t hear any news about him for two weeks after his disappearance. His car was found, but they didn’t know if he had been killed or kidnapped, and if kidnapped, by whom.
Those details, we still don’t know. And Sano doesn’t like to speak in detail about the experience. He still has friends and family in Venezuela, and fears for their safety.
Kidnapping, in Venezuela, is not uncommon. Organized crime has run rampant, and horse racing, as one of the nation’s most popular sports, has become a target of race fixers and “horse mafias.” A directive from the U.S. State Department warns Americans traveling there, “violent crime — including murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, and carjacking — is endemic throughout the country.”
Sano said that 20 people a day are kidnapped in Venezuela. Statistics vary depending on the source.
Sano would not discuss how large a ransom was paid for his release. The Miami Herald estimated the total at $320,000. Sano’s wife, Maria Cristina, told the newspaper that the family had to clean out its savings, sell its cars, and collect donations from family and friends, even Sano’s competitors in racing, but that everyone from owners to other trainers to grooms at the tracks pitched in.
Sano was released and spent 10 days in the hospital, then left Venezuela, he says forever. He had to leave behind a successful training operation — 160 horses he distributed among his fellow trainers and friends. Soon, they relocated to South Florida, Gulfstream Park, and started all over again, with nothing.
“I remember him walking around,” said Larry Kelly, his assistant. “Eventually he got some stalls, which was hard to do.”
Sano had won 3,338 races in his native country, now he was, in some ways, back to zero. Salomon Del Valle, who owns a construction company in Valencia and who dropped off the ransom money for Sano in a vacant lot, helped him get a couple of horses. Within a year, Sano was winning races. He took a couple of claiming horses, and went to work. He arrived in Florida March 22, 2010. Within a year, he was winning. In 2016, his horses took home more than $2.5 million in earnings.
Del Valle and his son, along with Jaime Diaz, a businessman from Spain who also lives in Miami, went in together to purchase Gunnevera for $16,000 at the Keeneland September Sale in 2015.
“This horse, he’s a special one,” Sano said. “He’s the opportunity of a lifetime. So many people in America have been good to me. I cry for Venezuela. But America is my future. I pray to win the Kentucky Derby for the people [of Venezuela].”
Gunnevera has won four of his past seven races, but comes off a Florida Derby in which he finished third as a beaten favorite. Sano didn’t like the No. 10 post in that race, and believes his colt has trained well up to the Derby.
Javier Castellano, also a native of Venezuela, who was just voted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, will have the mount.
“I know many people in Venezuela are rooting for this horse,” he said. “I hope we can give something back to them.”
Regardless, Sano delivers a commodity more valuable than victory. He represents hope. For him to be here, after being chained and hungry, for Del Valle to be with him as a Kentucky Derby owner after leaving his ransom in an abandoned lot, represents a swing in fortune of a kind that not even Hollywood can deliver.
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