The $16,000 yearling redeeming his trainer from kidnap nightmare
Orphaned colt has major chance in Kentucky Derby for Venezuelan exile
It is precisely its habit of sustaining national self-mythology that keeps the Kentucky Derby so close to American hearts, year after year. Few contenders, however, can ever have lent greater substance to the romance of the US as "land of opportunity" than the $16,000 orphan, Gunnevera, and the remarkable man who trains him.
Antonio Sano, a third-generation horseman, was a colossus of the Venezuelan Turf. They called him "the Czar of the Hippodrome." Champion trainer 19 times, he accumulated a record 3,338 winners. Then, eight years ago, he was drawn into the maelstrom of violence - manifest more or less daily, from riots to carjackings - tearing at the vitals of that unhappy country.
Sano was abducted and spent over a month chained up in a windowless room, the discomfort and hunger relieved only by an occasional sporting visit from a masked gangster to tease his temple with the muzzle of a gun. For a fortnight, his family had no idea of his whereabouts. When word came, it was with an offer to send them his fingers.
His friends, colleagues and family scraped together a ransom reported at 700,000 Bolivars (then worth around £230,000). Fellow horsemen contributed, even struggling grooms. The man entrusted with the unnerving task of depositing the payment in a vacant lot was Salomon Del Valle, a construction company owner.
Sano had lost 40lbs, but had retained all his digits. On emerging from hospital, he resolved to shake the dust of Venezuela from his feet. He had a stable of 160 horses, but he also had a wife and three children. After a sojourn in Italy - his grandfather had arrived in Venezuela from Sicily as a teenager - he started over in Florida with two cheap claimers. With Del Valle's help, he has since eked together a barn of 70-odd animals. In his very first season, in fact, he had two stakes winners and 37 in all.
Sano, after all, is not the only Venezuelan exile in Miami. And the old timers remember how Canonero, the "Caracas Cannonball", was flown into town from their homeland in 1971 among a planeload of ducks and chickens before hurtling through from 18th to land perhaps the biggest shock in Kentucky Derby history.
In September 2015, seeking affordable new blood for his barn, Sano was browsing Book 4 of the marathon yearling sale at Keeneland. Few others had taken their seats when one of the first lots of the session stood behind the ropes: a colt from the first crop of Dialed In, the son of Mineshaft who had started out at Darby Dan in Kentucky at a fee of $7,500.
Nobody took much interest in the animal, who had yet to grow into his leggy frame. He had been raised by a Paint foster mare named Jenny, his dam having haemorrhaged while foaling on Jim and Pam Robinson’s Brandywine Farm, up the road near Paris. Though she rallied, Unbridled Rage dropped dead of a heart attack ten days later. Heartbroken as the Robinsons were, the fact was that the 19-year-old had never produced a winner of any distinction and her last foal duly raised just $16,000 - the docket signed by Sano for Peacock Racing Stables, whose three partners include Del Valle.
Unbridled Rage herself had cost only $13,000 when sold in the same ring ten years previously. She had only raced once, started out breeding in the backwaters of Canada, and her page is a pedestrian one. Yet the second time Sano breezed the colt, he was blown away by his athleticism and gusto. He began to see something of the flair of the dam’s magnificent sire, Unbridled.
Gunnevera, as the youngster was named, won three times in six juvenile starts last year: a Hallandale maiden, the Grade 2 Saratoga Special and, by nearly six lengths, the Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes. That valuable purse helped to ensure that Dialed In was leading rookie sire in the US not only by number of winners, but also by prize-money.
Darby Dan responded by doubling his fee to $15,000. The stallion himself, after all, had not surfaced as a juvenile until November. At three Dialed In won the Holy Bull Stakes and then the Florida Derby, where he pounced on Shackleford from last place. Similar tactics were not so effective in the Kentucky Derby, for which he started favourite, and he managed only eighth behind Animal Kingdom. Nor could he get closer than fourth in the Preakness - behind his Darby Dan studmate Shackleford - and thereafter he mustered only a single, disappointing start at four.
After 103 foals in his first crop, Dialed In has a couple of bumps in the road ahead after producing just 69 and 54 in his next two. Just as well, then, that he made that flying start - prompting breeders to take a closer look at a family tree that features, as second dam, a champion two-year-old filly in Eliza. A daughter of Mt Livermore, she won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and the two halves of her pedigree brought together the Red God and Bold Ruler branches of the Nasrullah line. It was Eliza's date with Storm Cat, that elite broodmare sire, that produced the dam of Dialed In: Miss Doolittle, who won twice at two and made the podium in the Grade 2 Schuylerville Stakes.
Certainly it was certainly prescient to send Unbridled Rage to a grandson of A.P. Indy. Weeks after her visit to Dialed In, the Kentucky Derby was won by Orb - by Malibu Moon, a son of A.P. Indy, out of an Unbridled mare. And the same cross, of course, gave us the champion sire Tapit.
Something, anyhow, seems to have drawn out a latent prowess in the roots of Unbridled Rage’s pedigree. These actually extend to Europe and her imported fourth dam, Sister Grey, who had left behind Grey Of Falloden to win a Cesarewitch under a welter burden.
Perhaps this is where Gunnevera dredges up the strong finish that seems bound to serve him well in the Run For The Roses. While unable to emulate his sire in either the Holy Bull or the Florida Derby, he ran extremely well in both and was a runaway winner of the Grade 2 Fountain Of Youth in between. In the Florida Derby, Always Dreaming rolled even fractions the whole way on a fast track; Gunnevera, drawn wide, surged into third with the best stretch run produced in any of the trials.
But few Americans, outside the bloodstock game, will be bothering themselves too much with nicks or young sires or fifth dams to explain his rise. They will picture Sano on those first mornings at Calder, chatting with local Hispanics on the back stretch about renting a couple of stalls, claiming a horse or two. And they know that the day he found the orphaned yearling at Keeneland, his nightmare resolved itself into the American dream.