Gunnevera shook up the Triple Crown Trail with his mild upset of Irish War Cry and others in Saturday’s Xpressbet Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, another exciting chapter added to the unbelievable life of his trainer Antonio Sano.
Sano, a native of Venezuela, first came on our radar last summer at Saratoga when Gunnevera won the Grade 2 Saratoga Special for the conditioner’s first win at the track in his first attempt in upstate New York. That’s remarkable in its own right, but nothing compared to a story Sano told Sean Clancy after the race.
The tale was titled “Better Days” and published in Sean’s daily column Cup of Coffee in the Aug. 17, 2016 issue of The Saratoga Special. It’s a little early for a Throwback Thursday, so consider this a bonus for this week. Enjoy.
By Sean Clancy
Antonio Sano stood in the winner’s circle at Saratoga. Surrounded by his family - his wife, two sons, his daughter and a cousin. Sano’s Gunnevera was on his way to the test barn after upsetting the Grade 2 Saratoga Special for Sano’s first win at Saratoga on his first visit to Saratoga. The 53-year-old Venezuela-born trainer was basking in the accomplishment, the moment.
In broken English, Sano talked about his horse, talked about the race, talked about his career. A reporter asked the questions in English and sometimes Sano’s sons Alex and Maurizio would interpret the questions in Spanish for Sano, who would then answer in English. Sometimes his sons would interpret his Spanish answers into English. It was a classic exchange – a trainer talking about his horse, a father talking about his kids, a husband talking about his wife, an expat talking about his home country, all in a shared understanding of two languages.
Then Sano paused at the question, well, it was less of a pause and more of a gathering of composure. He didn’t need his sons to interpret it for him, nor, did he need them to answer.
Asked why he left Venezuela six years ago, after winning 19 training titles and over 3,000 races, Sano said it, as matter-of-factly as a man can when it comes to life and death.
“I got kidnapped,” Sano said. “Thirty-six days.”
Yeah, kidnapped for 36 days. Thirty-six days – the equivalent of Opening Day to Travers Day at Saratoga, the time it takes to complete the Triple Crown, plus a day, longer than the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“Thirty-six days. Thirty-six days,” Sano said. “It was terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible.”
“Oh, oh, oh,” Sano’s wife, Maria said, shuddering while holding onto her husband’s arm.
Sano squeezed the arm of the woman who paid his ransom, returned his freedom.
“It’s a beautiful country, for me, it’s the best country in the world, the problem is political,” Sano said. “I was made in Venezuela, everything I have is from Venezuela, I owe everything to Venezuela.”
Sano’s 9-year-old daughter, Marielena, looked at her dad.
“They ruined it,” she said.
Sano looked down at his daughter, a father’s heart breaking at his daughter’s frayed innocence.
It’s hard to know what would occupy your mind when you’re kidnapped for 36 days. A third-generation horseman, Sano didn’t think about his horses, he didn’t think about coming to America to train horses, he didn’t think about freedom, he didn’t think about a next move.
“I think only of my kids and my wife, and my family, the only things,” Sano said. “My daughter was 3 years old, she cried every day, ‘Where is my father? Where is my father? Where is my father?’ ”
Only when freed did Sano think about what to do next, knowing he had to escape Hugo Chavez’s socialistic policies that had sent Venezuela into turmoil.
“Before I got kidnapped, my wife tell me, ‘Leave here, leave here, leave here, the country is getting bad.’ I say, ‘No way, it’s good here,’ ” Sano said. “When I got out, I thank God, and say, “let’s leave this country.’ ”
Sano visited his family in Italy and checked out the racing scene there, but decided America was a better fit, moving his family to Florida and setting up at Calder. Since saddling his first American runner in 2010, Sano has won 440 races for more than $10 million in earnings, he’s won meet titles at Calder, Gulfstream Park West and Gulfstream Park. Sano has campaigned graded stakes winners Grand Tito, City Of Weston and Devilish Lady.
With 28 horses at Gulfstream, 30 horses at Gulfstream Park West, a new yearling purchased at the recent Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select sale, Gunnevera pointing for the Grade 1 Hopeful at the end of the meet and sitting atop the Gulfstream trainers’ standings, Sano's business is booming.
“The horses in Venezuela are good horses, but different horses,” Sano said. “Training is no different but each horse is different, each horse is a different world.”
For Sano, he’s in a different world, six years after being kidnapped, fleeing his country, he’s winning graded stakes in Saratoga, surrounded by family.
“Maybe the next meet, we’ll bring a small stable, 15 horses here,” Sano said. “We don’t have the horses to be stabled here yet, but maybe next year. I’m young.”
Sano’s wife smiled, “Very young.”
Sano laughed, a content man whose worst days – those 36 days – are well behind him.
“For my wife, my sons, my daughter, I work, I work, I work,” Sano said. “Venezuela is good, I like Venezuela, but this is better, we are in the best country. New life. New world.”