Kidnapped twice, trainer Antonio Sano eyeing Kentucky Derby

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. (AP) Getting to what will be his first Kentucky Derby is on Antonio Sano's mind almost constantly these days.

To say he took an unusual route would be an understatement.

Kidnapped on two separate occasions eight years ago in his native Venezuela - once for just a few hours, the other for 36 harrowing days, both times being freed after paying ransoms that he prefers not to disclose - the trainer and his family came to the United States to start their lives over in what they hoped to be a safer environment.

Fast forward eight years, and the 54-year-old Sano has a horse named Gunnevera, the favorite for Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and one that seems to already be among the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

''I had a little problem,'' Sano said. ''Now I have a big opportunity.''

A ''little problem.'' That's what he calls being held twice against his will, inevitably wondering if he would ever see his family again. Now he's a few weeks away from stepping onto the grounds of Churchill Downs for the first time, assuming Gunnevera - a winner in four of his last six starts, with three of those victories coming in graded stakes races - gets out of this weekend with no problems.

Long before Gunnevera ever saw the track, Sano knew there was something special.

''I bought the horse in September 2015,'' Sano said. ''I worked the horse three or four times and I said, `This is my horse.' He's good.''

Gunnevera already has enough points to assure himself of a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. Still, Sano hopes he's done enough to set Gunnevera up for a win in the Florida Derby - the race that Nyquist used to prep for his win at Churchill Downs a year ago.

''It's very important, this moment,'' Sano said.

These are very troubled times for Venezuela, and that isn't new.

The U.S. Department of State has long warned Americans from going to Venezuela, saying ''violent crime - including murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, and carjacking - is endemic throughout the country.'' Just this week, Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled it can take over the powers of congress in a move that some said was a step toward installing a dictatorship in the South American nation.

Despite it all, Sano is proud of where he's from - and what he's come from.

''Venezuela is my history. America is my now,'' Sano said. ''At this moment, I'm working for my kids. My kids are what it's all about for me. I'm working for their better.''

It's no coincidence that Gunnevera's ownership group includes two Venezuelans. Sano, of course, is Venezuelan. So it only makes sense that the jockey be Venezuelan as well - and that jockey is Javier Castellano, the winner of the last four Eclipse Awards as the top rider in the game.

Castellano called Sano to ask for the job. It doesn't always work that way at Derby time.

''Maybe it's meant to be,'' said Castellano, who has ridden in 10 Kentucky Derbys. ''Who knows?''

Sano doesn't speak often about what he went through, and when he does he keeps certain details private. He said he's still very leery of his family's safety, and takes extra measures to help ensure their security in the U.S.

But Castellano knows the tale well, and raves about the person Sano is.

''It's amazing,'' Castellano said. ''One thing you have to realize is to appreciate life. You help that kind of guy. He's always helpful, very humble guy, always appreciates the opportunities people give to him. Hey, he's lucky to be here. So you just enjoy the ride.''

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