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  • Horse racing grabs the public's attention during Kentucky Derby week and Saturday's race offers a variety of interesting storylines worth following.
By Tim Layden
May 02, 2017

LOUISVILLE – On a cool, overcast morning, 10 days before the Kentucky Derby, Antonio Sano is flipping through pictures on his phone. Sano, 51, is a thoroughbred horse trainer, and on Saturday he will saddle Gunnevera in the 143rd running of the Derby, the apex of a career that stretches past three decades. Eight years ago Sano was winning races and making good money in his native Venezuela, when he was kidnapped and held 36 days, handcuffed to a bedpost with a hood over his head and fed small meals of rice and chicken. As the days passed, he feared that he would be killed, and never again see his wife and three children, never again tighten the leather girth on a lean racehorse, and most certainly never stand in front of a long, white horse barn in the shadow of Churchill Downs’s iconic twin spires in the spring of the year.

But here he is, wearing a blue windbreaker and a baseball cap, occasionally stealing glances at Gunnevera, who is gnawing on a hay bale hung outside his stall. Sano and his family have lived in the United States since 2010, and his English is more than serviceable, but the steady patter of interviews makes him uncomfortable. Question after question in a language not his own. It is the kind of sudden attention that unnerves even the most English-speaking of Derby participants every year. But there is a message: He loved his country, but then his country became dangerous and now he is here. He flips through dozens of screens on his phone and finally lands on a photo taken just the previous day, a picture of thousands of protestors gathered on roadways in the Venezuelan capital city of Caracas, where civil unrest prevails.

Sano holds the phone up. "This is every day,’’ says Sano, frowning. "Twenty years ago, Venezuela was a great country. Now it is totally different. Sad. Very sad. So for me, for my family, no more Venezuela. Only America. This country has opened its arms."

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And so we arrive at another running of the most famous—the only famous?—horse race in the United States. Racing again chins itself on the wall of attention and bares its eyeballs over the top.

On April 18, 90-year-old comedy legend Mel Brooks tweeted "To the @latimes – shame on you for eliminating daily coverage of horse racing (the sport of kings!) from your newspaper." This fed seamlessly into the trope that denigrates racing as a leisure time activity for the elderly and the infirm, and also opened the door for the reliable criticism of racing as animal abuse, a not insignificant lobby that will always walk through that door. (In point of fact, the Los Angeles Times still publishes stories about horse racing, but does not run daily entries, the apparent source of Brooks’s ire. Entries at dozens of tracks are readily available online, but Mel Brooks has earned the right to complain about anything he chooses).

There are several realities in play here. Racing is not poised to return to the status as a mainstream, water-cooler, must-see sport that it last held in the 1930s and briefly recaptured in the 70s and for a week or so every time a horse was poised to win the Triple Crown. It is a niche sport. But: Almost everything is a niche sport in 2017. We live in a la carte America, where the citizenry watches, reads, listens to and clicks on only that content which it seeks to engage. Everything from the 2016 presidential election to the recent layoffs at ESPN was in some way connected to this phenomenon. The press room this week at Churchill Downs is nearly devoid of what can be called "national" or "mainstream" press entities, but overflowing with industry-specific media (some of which are funded by that industry, some of which are not—a different discussion, and valid in all niche sports). There is only one exception to this compartmentalization in sports and even the mighty NFL is battling diminished ratings and various political controversies ranging from Kaepernick to concussions to weed, all of which promise to chip away at its throne.

The battle for widespread relevance is no longer worth fighting. That game has changed forever.

But in all of this, the Kentucky Derby is a mighty appealing vertical. The Derby is life, unfiltered and unprotected. This year’s Derby is the story of man who was kidnapped and survived. It is the story of a son who despised horse racing because his father, a trainer like his grandfather, left him behind to pursue the game. And now they work together. It is the story of an apprentice trainer, long out on his own, taking one last set of lessons from his mentor. It is the story of a husband and wife, nursing an injured colt to the starting line. It is the story of a jockey’s broken body, at last healed, and with a chance to win roses for the first time. It is the story of an octogenarian who drove race cars half a century ago. And it is the story of our times, of tweets and immigration and a clashing of cultures, right there in front of us, because there is no escape from politics in American today.

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And you can say that this is every sport, and perhaps it is. But in a football game, the stories are subverted for the spectacle, the humans hidden behind facemasks, their realities filtered through sponsors and advertising campaigns. And you can say that racing is nothing more than rich white owners playing with their money. But if that was a disqualifying component, the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots would have far smaller fan bases. Just to name two.

Early in the evening of this coming Saturday, 20 horses will walk into a starting gate that lies beyond the top of the Churchill Downs homestretch. One will cross the finish line first, changing lives forever. And this, too, is the beauty of the Derby. In the Super Bowl, one of two teams will win, in a drama that plays out over more than three hours. In the NBA Playoffs, one of 16 teams will win, and that drama takes weeks. In the Derby, it is 20 teams and two minutes; even the winners can’t process what’s happened in real time. (Nor can journalists, which leads to chronic pucker at the start).

Perhaps it will be Gunnevera that wins. What a story that would be. In 2009, Sano was 43, was known as the "Czar of the Hippodrome," the best trainer in the land. But under former president Hugo Chavez, Venezuela had become increasingly unstable and dangerous; the kidnapping of successful people was epidemic. In the spring of that year, Sano says he was taken off the street by masked men and forced to withdraw money from an ATM. "They call it express kidnapping," says Sano. On July 24, masked men took him again.

Sano does not enjoy relating the details of his abduction. A Venezuelan horse racing blog called Dimension Hipica, or Equestrian Dimension, reported extensively on the crime. SI reporter Chris Chavez translated several of the blog’s posts. According to the blog, Sano’s truck was rammed from behind in Valencia, two hours west of Caracas, by a vehicle with several passengers; police found his car with damage in the rear. On Aug. 6 of that year, 15 days after the abduction, the blog posted an item which read: "From Dimension Hipica, we ask the subjects to release Antonio Sano. You have his family, friends and now all the horse racing fans on edge in this delicate situation. Please, he's a parent. [Sano has three children]. We all have to rely on the good work of CICPC [the Venezuelan government police] and the National Guard. We are all for the liberation of Antonio Sano. Hold on, colleague and friend."

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On Aug. 28, a ransom was paid that was equivalent to more than $300,000, collected from Sano’sfamily, friend and clients. Sano was released. "The people dropped me off a half hour from my home," he says. "I called my son and he took me to the hospital." Sano says he had lost 50 pounds and spent 10 days in that hospital. His wife, Maria Cristina, begged Sano to leave Venezuela. They first went to Italy, where Sano’s father, also a trainer (as was his grandfather), was born. The opportunities in racing were minimal, so in 2010 they came to the United States. Sano has established a solid operation in South Florida and in 2015, convinced three clients, all of them Venezuelan, to buy a $16,000 yearling. That yearling has won nine races, including this year’s Fountain of Youth Stakes in Florida, a key prep race for the Derby.

Sano has never attended a Kentucky Derby, but says he remembers hearing stories of Canonero II, the Venezuelan champion (though Kentucky-bred) who won a shocking victory in the 1971 Derby. "Canonero won, and everybody was so happy," says Sano. "Now maybe we can make everybody happy again."

Or perhaps it will be Classic Empire. What a story that would be. He is the father-son project of Mark and Norman Casse, who together helped the reigning Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion overcome foot and back injuries and an aversion to training and across the finish line first in the April 15 Arkansas Derby. It’s logical that they would train together, because Mark Casse’s father, also named Norman, was a lifelong horseman and Mark traveled the New England country fair circuit with his dad, sleeping in a tiny bed over the cab of the horse van. Mark trained his first winner, Solid Rocket, at age 17 at the Barrington Fair in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

When I visited Mark, 56, at Churchill Downs, he showed me a photo of himself, his father, and his two children, Norman and Joel, on the Turfway Park track in Northern Kentucky in 1989. Three generations on the racetrack. They lived in Louisville, so close to the track that they could hear race calls in the kitchen. The family progression into racing was natural, until it wasn’t. Mark was divorced from Joel and Norman’s mom and left Kentucky in 1990, to set up shot at Woodbine Race Track in Canada. Norman, then seven, learned to hate that his father was gone and hate the sport that took him away. (Mark has since remarried twice and has seven children).

"You want the real story?" Norman said last week, standing outside the barn. "I hated horse racing because of my dad. I felt like it made him leave here, and I never got to see him and then when I did get to see him, it was at the races. I didn’t want any part of it."

But Norman was a kid in Louisville and slowly the sport seeped into his system, until in 2004 he was at Churchill Downs when undefeated Smarty Jones won the Derby, just an hour after a soaking deluge. "I just caught the fever so bad," says Norman. It took him two years to tell his father he wanted in, at which point Mark said, "Why didn’t you say something?" Now they are the yin and yang, making each other smarter through disagreement.

"I sure wouldn’t be here without my Dad," says Mark. "But I wouldn’t be here without my son, either."

Perhaps it will be McCraken, named (and misspelled, short one letter c; an issue that didn’t stop American Pharoah) for a town in Kansas and trained by Ian Wilkes. It was 28 years ago that Wilkes came to the United States from New South Wales in Australia and went to work as an exercise rider for Texan Carl Nafzger. Wilkes was the work rider on Unbridled, who won the 1990 Derby. Wilkes took over Nafzger’s barn when Nafzger went into semi-retirement in 2008 (a year after winning his second Derby with Street Sense and rail-riding Calvin Borel), but they still talk every day and Nafzger is in Louisville now. "He calls every day to ask how the horse is doing," says Wilkes, "I tell him he’s good, and by the way, Carl, I’m doing good, too." Wilkes pauses, and adds, "Hopefully I do him proud."

Perhaps it will be Girvin, who has raced just four times in his life, but three of them have been victories, including the April 1 Louisiana Derby, another big prep. Girvin is trained by Joe Sharp and his exercise rider is his wife, Rosie Napravnik, who won more races, for more money, than any woman in history, before retiring in 2014, after winning a Breeders’ Cup race, Serena style, while seven weeks pregnant. She and Sharp have two children. Girvin has developed what is called a quarter crack, a vertical crack in the hoof wall, and together Sharp and Napravnik have nursed him toward the Derby, including swimming sessions on days when he doesn’t breeze.

Chelsea Durand, AP

Or perhaps it will be Irish War Cry, winner of two prep races, including the April 8 Wood Memorial in New York. Irish War Cry is owned by 86-year-old Isabelle Haskell de Tomaso, whose father is the namesake of Monmouth Park’s signature summer race. In her 30s Isabelle married Argentine race car driver Alexandro de Tomaso and they drove together in team races through the late 1950’s. She has never bred a horse like this one, and falls into the long line of lifelong owners given their fastest horse late in life.

Her horse’s jockey is Rajiv Maragh, a Jamaican-born, 31-year-old rider who in the summer of 2015 suffered horrific injuries when a horse fell on his prone body in a race Belmont Park. Maragh lay on the dirt that day, with eight fractures in his spine, multiple broken ribs and a collapsed lung. "I thought I was dying," he says. "It was a very frightening thing." It would be 14 months before Maragh sat on a horse again, and then only to walk slowly around trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn. His first win back came in December and after Irish War Cry’s disappointing seventh-place finish in the Fountain of Youth, Motion asked Maragh to take mount from Joel Rosario.

It is Irish War Cry’s trainer, 52-year-old Graham Motion, who connects the Derby to the reality of America’s daily political tension. Motion, who was born in England but became a U.S. citizen when he married his wife 23 years ago, maintains a very active Twitter account. This is not unusual among trainers, who are running small—or in some cases, not so small—businesses. What is unusual is that Motion has used his account to regularly express his distaste for President Donald J. Trump, often in a cheeky manner with roots in subtle British humor.

On Monday of this week, Motion responded to a tweet referencing Trump’s claim that the Civil War "should have been worked out," with this response: "If only we had him back then."

But at various times during the 2016 presidential campaign, and since, Motion has been sharper in his criticism. In response to a January Tweet suggesting that the election be invalidated, Motion wrote, "I'm afraid what's done is done, can only hope he sets a better example as President than he has to this point and is out in 4 yrs."

Motion’s willingness to express his political stance is rare in racing, a sport with vast wealth at the top and low-wage workers, many of them immigrants, at the bottom. (Wilkes became a U.S. citizen in 2015 and the presidential election was his first as a voter. "What a choice!" he said, but declined to reveal which candidate he chose). Motion said that he has tried to "tone it down" on social media in recent weeks, out of respect for others in the sport, many of them owners. "I have some owners who feel differently than I do," says Motion, "But I certainly hope they wouldn’t hold it against me." (One of Motion’s clients is Vincent Viola, a West Point graduate, lawyer and businessman—he owns the Florida Panthers NHL team—who was tabbed as Trump’s Secretary of the Army, but withdrew because of ethics concerns. Viola owns Derby contender Always Dreaming, but that horse is trained by Todd Pletcher).

But despite any potential conflicts, Motion remains passionate. "There are a couple things I feel strongly about, other than horses," says Motion. "One is gun control. The other is our sitting president."

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​Pletcher’s is among the largest of thoroughbred operations in the country. He has more than 160 employees, and says that they represent 28 different countries. This is common in racing, where important, relatively low-paying jobs like groom and hotwalker are often filled by immigrants. "It’s a demanding lifestyle," says Pletcher, "and the hours are not appealing to a lot of American workers." Pletcher has employees from Mexico, Guatemala and Chile, as well as Italy, England, France and Ireland. Concerns about future U.S. immigration policies are ever present. "We just had 50 [employees] come back into the U.S. from their home countries," said Pletcher last week. "It’s something we dedicate a lot of time and energy to." But he declines to make broad political statements. "Like everyone else," he says, "I’m concerned in some areas."

But this, too, is part of the authenticity of racing, where public policy collides with the daily function of the sport.

The Kentucky Derby brings all of this into view for day. Late Saturday afternoon, 20 horses will be walked from their barns to the paddock at Churchill Downs, a spectacle witnessed by more than 160,000 devotees and a television audience in the many millions. One of the horses will win and fiction will become real. Lives will change forever. It is relevance in the extreme.

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