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Antonio Sano trainer of Breeders' Cup Classic contender Gunnevera

PROFILE (NA VERSION), NATWeb Master
I’m told to meet Antonio Sano at 8:30 A.M. outside Barn 64 at Gulfstream Park West, which most people refer to as Calder Race Course. Barn 64 is a typical Calder barn, with green and white awning, green-painted stalls, and a tropical feel. It could easily double as a petting zoo. On arrival, I am greeted by two goats, ducks, and an array of other birds. Legend even has it that one overly friendly pigeon has a special bond with stable star Gunnevera.   More about Gunnevera later.   Antonio Sano is an early riser and according to his wife Maria Christina, not the greatest of sleepers in any instance. Up at 3:50 every morning come rain or shine, Sano can be found splitting time between his barns at Calder and Gulfstream Park. Between the two locations, he’s got roughly 70 horses in his care.   The two- and three-year-olds are based at Calder, and the older horses are some 10 miles away at Gulfstream. “I like the track [at Calder] for the babies. It’s a good track, deep sand, and when it rains it drains, while over at the other place, it can take two days to clear.” Assistant trainer Jesus “Chino” Prada, who has been an integral member of the team since Sano started training in the U.S., chips in: “Gulfstream is great for racing, but here is the best for training.”   Despite earning his 500th U.S. career win in mid-April, Sano is not yet be a household name in this country, but in his native Venezuela, the man’s a legend. He trained no less than 3,338 winners on his home soil, and it was only thanks to a kidnapping in 2009 that lasted longer than a month that he quit training in the country. The kidnapping -- his second -- resulted in the father-of-three doing what was best for his family, which was to remove them from the danger that his success was creating.   Sano is a third-generation trainer. “My father, grandfather, and uncle all worked with horses,” he recounts. “My father right now is 88 years old. He arrived from Italy when he was just 16 and was working with horses. They came from Sicily. In fact, my whole family is from there, including my wife!”   After graduating from college with a degree in engineering, the magnetic pull to the racetrack was too great, and Sano went to work as an assistant trainer Julio Ayala to enhance what knowledge and skills had been passed down to him from his father and grandfather.   Setting up on his own in March of 1988, Sano ended up training in Venezuela for more than 20 years, earning the trainers’ championship title 19 times and winning an average of 150 races annually, with three year-end win tallies in excess of 200. That’s no mean feat when you consider that racing only takes place twice a week in the city of Valencia, where Sano was based. He earned the nickname “Czar Valencia Hipismo,” “hipismo” for horseracing.   In Venezuela, according to Sano, the pedigrees of the horses he trained were a little different than what he works with in the U.S., and so was the daily training regime. “I had 160 horses in my barn and worked the horses in four groups. Riders here take the horses to the track every 45 minutes and come back. There I would go to the track with four sets of 40 horses each, and every rider would work on two horses per set. I had the privilege to count 20 riders at the time. We would take them all to the track at 6 A.M. At 6:45 A.M., the second set would be ready, the third by 7:30 A.M., and the last before 8:30 A.M.”   After first going from Venezuela to Italy, Sano and his family moved to the U.S. in March of 2010. They had visited the country before without spending any time at the racetrack, preferring the great vacationing opportunities that Florida offers with a young family in tow.   Well known for his training of staying types, Sano found the transition to training the speed-bred horses of the U.S. “Each horse is different, but I’ve learned more from others around me here in the U.S. than I ever learned in Venezuela,” he says -- modest words, perhaps, for a trainer who is a master of his game. “But my focus is always on the way the horses finish.”   Prada has been a friend of Sano’s for over 40 years. They attended trainer school together, along with Enrique Torres, who looks after the Gulfstream string, in their homeland in 1988. Prada trained for a while in Venezuela, where he got over 200 winners, and in 2001, he was the first to move to the U.S., where he was assistant to trainer Rodolfo Garcia.   Sano and Prada teaming up in Florida may never have happened had Sano decided to move to Italy after the kidnapping. “Italy has beautiful people and great food, but the racing wasn’t for me. So I went to Florida and met Mike Antifantis (the racing secretary at Calder at the time), who gave me a couple of stalls. I then had to go back to Venezuela and close shop, giving all my horses away.”   March 22, 2010, was an important date in Sano’s and Prada’s lives. It marked the start of a new chapter, when they claimed their first horse for their fledgling operation. The numbers quickly grew from there. “Two horses became four, and quickly we had 10,” recounts Prada.   The stable ended its first season with 37 winners, including two in stakes races. Knowing very few people or being known to few was probably a good thing for Sano as he and Prada quietly went about building their business. And where resentment for the new man in town could have quickly grown, friendships flourished with other trainers. “They treated me well and with respect,” says Sano.   With a successful formula in place, Sano’s stable was able to gradually improve the quality of stock. Still, his patronage remains primarily from Venezuelan or other Latin American ownership interests; he hasn’t really caught on with American owners.   Three years ago, Sano started to shift his focus away from claiming horses to buying yearlings, while still using the claiming philosophy of trading up purchases. This time last year, Sano had high hopes for a then-unraced Broken Vow filly named Amapola, who he had bought as a yearling for $25,000. Amapola crossed the wire first by nearly 10 lengths in her May, 2016, debut in track record time for four-and-a-half furlongs at Gulfstream, only to lose the race in the stewards room for drifting in at the start. She turned a lot of heads that day, and Sano parted with her for a substantial profit. “I sold her for the money,” he says.   As with most buyers at sales, pedigree and conformation are at the top of Sano’s list when studying a catalogue page, but for him the stride of the individual and the horse’s eye are the main factors to determine if he is going to raise his hand in the ring -- should the price fall in his preferred buying range of $5,000 to $50,000.   In 2015, Sano made a number of purchases at yearling sales, and came home from the Keeneland September sale with a good-looking son of first crop sire and Florida Derby winner Dialed In.   The sale of that colt, from the consignment of Jim and Pam Robinson’s Brandywine Farm, must have been a rather bittersweet moment for breeders Brandywine and Stephen Upchurch. The chestnut’s dam Unbridled Rage had died about a week and a half after he was born, and the newly orphaned foal was bottle-fed until a foster mare could be found.   That colt, for which Sano had the winning bid at $16,000, is, of course, Gunnevera. And thanks to him, if Dialed In hadn’t already been a particular favorite of Sano’s, he certainly would be now.   After the sale at Keeneland, Gunnevera, along with the other Sano purchases, was sent to Classic Mile Park in Ocala, where he was broken by Julio Rada, a classmate of Sano and Prada’s at the Venezuelan training school in 1988.   Gunnevera was showing potential at Classic Mile and by the time of his arrival at Calder, his reputation was growing. However, the faith shown in him by those who knew him best wasn’t being shared by everyone: the first-time owner who Sano had bought the horse for eventually got around to paying for the colt...but the check bounced.   The name “Gunnevera” has no real meaning. It’s a combination of place names and words favored by his ownership interests -- Jamie Diaz, originally from Spain but now in Miami; and Peacock Racing, a partnership of Venezuelans Guillermo Guerra and Guerra’s father-in-law Solomon Del-Valle, who ended up with the horse just six weeks before his first run.   Del-Valle’s friendship with Sano is deeper than most normal friendships, as it was he who helped Sano’s wife arrange and finance Sano’s release from his kidnappers. “I told him that we bought horses at the yearling sale and this was the best one, that I’m going to make him a champion.” Sano’s prophecy looks like it’s showing some promise, and Gunnevera’s success to date will go some way toward repaying Del-Valle’s generosity to the Sano family over the years.   So far in his young career, Gunnevera won the Grade 2 Saratoga Special and the Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot at two. This year, he has made three starts, all at Gulfstream, with a win in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, a second in the Grade 2 Holy Bull, and a third in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Not only has he earned over $1.1 million, but he has qualified for a berth in the starting gate for the May 6 Kentucky Derby.   Gunnevera is not his trainer’s first graded stakes winner; although none received anywhere near the level of acclaim as the son of Dialed In, Sano previously handled Devilish Lady, City of Weston, and Grand Tito to graded stakes wins.   Sano is the first to admit that nothing has quite yet compared to the sense of anticipation that has been building with the Gunnevera story and the national exposure he’s starting to receive. But how well does he react to the inevitable pressure? “I’ve never been in a situation like this before, but it’s a blessing,” he calmly says. For Maria Christina, it’s as if her husband’s life is going on just the same. “He never sleeps before any race, he’s always thinking about something.”   Come to think of it, Sano’s whole day and night seems to be taken up with work or thinking about horses. The work day often ends 16 hours after it began, giving Sano a little much-needed family time with his three children. His eldest son Alessandro is already thinking about following in the family business. But unlike his father who has an engineering degree, he wants to get a degree that will help his career in the equine industry and is planning on going to vet school. Mauricio is 18 years old and also shows a keen interest in the sport, as does Sano’s daughter Mariella, who is 11.   But what about time away from horses, does Sano take a vacation? “One week -- and I don’t relax,” he says. “He’s always on the phone to Chino and I say, ‘No phone, Tony, the horses won’t run faster with you not there,’” interjects Maria Christina.   “Twenty years ago when Alessandro was born, I would never have thought that I would be where I am now,” says Sano.   “But Tony, you were scared to come here 20 years ago. There wasn't the opportunity we have here in Venezuela,” retorts Maria Christina. So Venezuela’s loss is America’s gain, and this is one family truly living the American dream.

I’m told to meet Antonio Sano at 8:30 A.M. outside Barn 64 at Gulfstream Park West, which most people refer to as Calder Race Course. Barn 64 is a typical Calder barn, with green and white awning, green-painted stalls, and a tropical feel. It could easily double as a petting zoo. On arrival, I am greeted by two goats, ducks, and an array of other birds. Legend even has it that one overly friendly pigeon has a special bond with stable star Gunnevera.

 

More about Gunnevera later.

 

Antonio Sano is an early riser and according to his wife Maria Christina, not the greatest of sleepers in any instance. Up at 3:50 every morning come rain or shine, Sano can be found splitting time between his barns at Calder and Gulfstream Park. Between the two locations, he’s got roughly 70 horses in his care.

 

The two- and three-year-olds are based at Calder, and the older horses are some 10 miles away at Gulfstream. “I like the track [at Calder] for the babies. It’s a good track, deep sand, and when it rains it drains, while over at the other place, it can take two days to clear.” Assistant trainer Jesus “Chino” Prada, who has been an integral member of the team since Sano started training in the U.S., chips in: “Gulfstream is great for racing, but here is the best for training.”

 

Despite earning his 500th U.S. career win in mid-April, Sano is not yet be a household name in this country, but in his native Venezuela, the man’s a legend. He trained no less than 3,338 winners on his home soil, and it was only thanks to a kidnapping in 2009 that lasted longer than a month that he quit training in the country. The kidnapping -- his second -- resulted in the father-of-three doing what was best for his family, which was to remove them from the danger that his success was creating.

 

Sano is a third-generation trainer. “My father, grandfather, and uncle all worked with horses,” he recounts. “My father right now is 88 years old. He arrived from Italy when he was just 16 and was working with horses. They came from Sicily. In fact, my whole family is from there, including my wife!”

 

After graduating from college with a degree in engineering, the magnetic pull to the racetrack was too great, and Sano went to work as an assistant trainer Julio Ayala to enhance what knowledge and skills had been passed down to him from his father and grandfather.

 

Setting up on his own in March of 1988, Sano ended up training in Venezuela for more than 20 years, earning the trainers’ championship title 19 times and winning an average of 150 races annually, with three year-end win tallies in excess of 200. That’s no mean feat when you consider that racing only takes place twice a week in the city of Valencia, where Sano was based. He earned the nickname “Czar Valencia Hipismo,” “hipismo” for horseracing.

 

In Venezuela, according to Sano, the pedigrees of the horses he trained were a little different than what he works with in the U.S., and so was the daily training regime. “I had 160 horses in my barn and worked the horses in four groups. Riders here take the horses to the track every 45 minutes and come back. There I would go to the track with four sets of 40 horses each, and every rider would work on two horses per set. I had the privilege to count 20 riders at the time. We would take them all to the track at 6 A.M. At 6:45 A.M., the second set would be ready, the third by 7:30 A.M., and the last before 8:30 A.M.”

 

After first going from Venezuela to Italy, Sano and his family moved to the U.S. in March of 2010. They had visited the country before without spending any time at the racetrack, preferring the great vacationing opportunities that Florida offers with a young family in tow.

 

Well known for his training of staying types, Sano found the transition to training the speed-bred horses of the U.S. “Each horse is different, but I’ve learned more from others around me here in the U.S. than I ever learned in Venezuela,” he says -- modest words, perhaps, for a trainer who is a master of his game. “But my focus is always on the way the horses finish.”

 

Prada has been a friend of Sano’s for over 40 years. They attended trainer school together, along with Enrique Torres, who looks after the Gulfstream string, in their homeland in 1988. Prada trained for a while in Venezuela, where he got over 200 winners, and in 2001, he was the first to move to the U.S., where he was assistant to trainer Rodolfo Garcia.

 

Sano and Prada teaming up in Florida may never have happened had Sano decided to move to Italy after the kidnapping. “Italy has beautiful people and great food, but the racing wasn’t for me. So I went to Florida and met Mike Antifantis (the racing secretary at Calder at the time), who gave me a couple of stalls. I then had to go back to Venezuela and close shop, giving all my horses away.”

 

March 22, 2010, was an important date in Sano’s and Prada’s lives. It marked the start of a new chapter, when they claimed their first horse for their fledgling operation. The numbers quickly grew from there. “Two horses became four, and quickly we had 10,” recounts Prada.

 

The stable ended its first season with 37 winners, including two in stakes races. Knowing very few people or being known to few was probably a good thing for Sano as he and Prada quietly went about building their business. And where resentment for the new man in town could have quickly grown, friendships flourished with other trainers. “They treated me well and with respect,” says Sano.

 

With a successful formula in place, Sano’s stable was able to gradually improve the quality of stock. Still, his patronage remains primarily from Venezuelan or other Latin American ownership interests; he hasn’t really caught on with American owners.

 

Three years ago, Sano started to shift his focus away from claiming horses to buying yearlings, while still using the claiming philosophy of trading up purchases. This time last year, Sano had high hopes for a then-unraced Broken Vow filly named Amapola, who he had bought as a yearling for $25,000. Amapola crossed the wire first by nearly 10 lengths in her May, 2016, debut in track record time for four-and-a-half furlongs at Gulfstream, only to lose the race in the stewards room for drifting in at the start. She turned a lot of heads that day, and Sano parted with her for a substantial profit. “I sold her for the money,” he says.

 

As with most buyers at sales, pedigree and conformation are at the top of Sano’s list when studying a catalogue page, but for him the stride of the individual and the horse’s eye are the main factors to determine if he is going to raise his hand in the ring -- should the price fall in his preferred buying range of $5,000 to $50,000.

 

In 2015, Sano made a number of purchases at yearling sales, and came home from the Keeneland September sale with a good-looking son of first crop sire and Florida Derby winner Dialed In.

 

The sale of that colt, from the consignment of Jim and Pam Robinson’s Brandywine Farm, must have been a rather bittersweet moment for breeders Brandywine and Stephen Upchurch. The chestnut’s dam Unbridled Rage had died about a week and a half after he was born, and the newly orphaned foal was bottle-fed until a foster mare could be found.

 

That colt, for which Sano had the winning bid at $16,000, is, of course, Gunnevera. And thanks to him, if Dialed In hadn’t already been a particular favorite of Sano’s, he certainly would be now.

 

After the sale at Keeneland, Gunnevera, along with the other Sano purchases, was sent to Classic Mile Park in Ocala, where he was broken by Julio Rada, a classmate of Sano and Prada’s at the Venezuelan training school in 1988.

 

Gunnevera was showing potential at Classic Mile and by the time of his arrival at Calder, his reputation was growing. However, the faith shown in him by those who knew him best wasn’t being shared by everyone: the first-time owner who Sano had bought the horse for eventually got around to paying for the colt...but the check bounced.

 

The name “Gunnevera” has no real meaning. It’s a combination of place names and words favored by his ownership interests -- Jamie Diaz, originally from Spain but now in Miami; and Peacock Racing, a partnership of Venezuelans Guillermo Guerra and Guerra’s father-in-law Solomon Del-Valle, who ended up with the horse just six weeks before his first run.

 

Del-Valle’s friendship with Sano is deeper than most normal friendships, as it was he who helped Sano’s wife arrange and finance Sano’s release from his kidnappers. “I told him that we bought horses at the yearling sale and this was the best one, that I’m going to make him a champion.” Sano’s prophecy looks like it’s showing some promise, and Gunnevera’s success to date will go some way toward repaying Del-Valle’s generosity to the Sano family over the years.

 

So far in his young career, Gunnevera won the Grade 2 Saratoga Special and the Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot at two. This year, he has made three starts, all at Gulfstream, with a win in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, a second in the Grade 2 Holy Bull, and a third in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Not only has he earned over $1.1 million, but he has qualified for a berth in the starting gate for the May 6 Kentucky Derby.

 

Gunnevera is not his trainer’s first graded stakes winner; although none received anywhere near the level of acclaim as the son of Dialed In, Sano previously handled Devilish Lady, City of Weston, and Grand Tito to graded stakes wins.

 

Sano is the first to admit that nothing has quite yet compared to the sense of anticipation that has been building with the Gunnevera story and the national exposure he’s starting to receive. But how well does he react to the inevitable pressure? “I’ve never been in a situation like this before, but it’s a blessing,” he calmly says. For Maria Christina, it’s as if her husband’s life is going on just the same. “He never sleeps before any race, he’s always thinking about something.”

 

Come to think of it, Sano’s whole day and night seems to be taken up with work or thinking about horses. The work day often ends 16 hours after it began, giving Sano a little much-needed family time with his three children. His eldest son Alessandro is already thinking about following in the family business. But unlike his father who has an engineering degree, he wants to get a degree that will help his career in the equine industry and is planning on going to vet school. Mauricio is 18 years old and also shows a keen interest in the sport, as does Sano’s daughter Mariella, who is 11.

 

But what about time away from horses, does Sano take a vacation? “One week -- and I don’t relax,” he says. “He’s always on the phone to Chino and I say, ‘No phone, Tony, the horses won’t run faster with you not there,’” interjects Maria Christina.

 

“Twenty years ago when Alessandro was born, I would never have thought that I would be where I am now,” says Sano.

 

“But Tony, you were scared to come here 20 years ago. There wasn't the opportunity we have here in Venezuela,” retorts Maria Christina.


So Venezuela’s loss is America’s gain, and this is one family truly living the American dream.