A Violent Country, A Kidnapping, A New Life in the U.S.
By Bill Finley
The cliche isn’t always true. Trainer Antonio Sano, whose multiple stakes winner Gunnevera (Dialed In) will enter 2017 as one of the top 3-year-old colts in training, did not dream of winning the GI Kentucky Derby. He was merely focused on winning the next race at Hipodromo de Valencia in Carabobo, Venezuela, something he did quite often. With 3,338 winners in his native country, he remains the leading trainer in the history of Venezuelan racing. He was known as the “Czar Valencia Hipismo,” the King of Valencian horse racing.
Sano never won a 3,339th race in Venezuela; he was kidnapped in 2009 and held for 36 days before his wife paid a ransom to free him. It was the second time he had been kidnapped, the first ordeal lasting only four hours. For his safety and the safety of his family, he felt he had no choice but to leave.
Within a few months, he showed up on the backstretch at Calder Race Course without any horses but with faith that he could start over again and build a new life.
“After they kidnapped me, I took my wife and kids and came here,” said Sano, who is still learning the language of his new country. “It was very scary. Scary for me and my famiy.”
—10 straight seasons finishing among the top trainers in Gulfstream Park and Gulfstream Park West—
He said he does not like to talk about the kidnapping and will not reveal how much money had to be paid to secure his freedom. His wife, Maria Christina, who taught engineering at Carabobo University, will reveal a few details.
“It was horrible, the worst time in my life,” she said. “They wouldn’t give him food or anything to drink. My little daughter (Marielena, who was 3 at the time) would not talk, would not speak. She was frozen. My wonderful time was when he was freed and I saw that he was fine, safe. There were no problems. Many times, the kidnappers will cut their fingers off. I was worried they would kill him because you have no idea what happened to him.”
Venezuela is among the most dangerous countries in the world. Because many people do not report their kidnappings to the police, accurate data is hard to come by. In 2009, the year Sano was kidnapped, leaked government documents estimated there were 16,917 kidnappings in the nation. The violence that is rampant in Venezuela is linked with the changes in government known as the Bolivarian Revolution that were initiated by former President Hugo Chavez. Chavez’s policies led to corruption, poverty, rampant inflation, violence and a sense that the government was not interested in protecting the wealthy from criminals. As someone who made a good living and whose wife was a professional, Sano was a prime target for the kidnappers.
—Nine consecutive years with at least 50 wins (2011-2019)—
According to a CBS News.com report titled “The Horse Mafia of Venezuela,” gambling rings have been known to threaten and kidnap Venezuelan jockeys in order to fix races. It also reported that a top horse named Rio Negro (Ven) (Seek Smartly) was poisoned with an overdose of cortisone prior to the 2014 Army Day Derby so that gamblers could make money betting against him.
Once freed, Santo went directly to Italy, where he had family, and considered training there. But with the racing industry in that country in turmoil he turned to America and arrived in 2010.
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