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Kentucky Derby Stories: the kidnap victim, his orphaned colt, and the American Dream

$Kentucky Derby Stories: the kidnap victim, his orphaned colt, and the American DreamIt 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.


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