Envision a winning Venezuelan trainer, a corrupt industry, vengeful kidnapping, ransom money, and threats made upon loved ones. This experience was all too real for Antonio Sano and his family.
After escaping a hostage situation, Sano—who had been the leading trainer in Venezuela for 19 years—planned a move to America. In 2009, he and his family left their shattered lives behind and immigrated to the United States.
Though they had broken free of danger, leaving the only home they had ever known and coming to the US was not an effortless transition. They arrived with a preliminary knowledge of the English language and a limited amount of funding.
But in Kentucky, one track stood like a beacon of hope. The family found solace beneath the twin spires, where this year they’ll take on the May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) with Tami Bobo and Tristan De Meric’s Simplification .
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“We had to start from square zero when we moved here and go to the racetracks,” Sano recalled. Our first race was at Churchill Downs. They opened their doors to us, they gave us the stalls, they gave us everything that we needed.
“They had great hospitality. That meant a lot to us because we were starting with very little English language knowledge, very little knowledge about American culture, and from that it just went up. I’m very grateful.”
Remarkably, Sano has established a thriving business with the help of his son Alex that has seen their names written across headlines.
Their first shot at the Derby was with Falling Sky a horse that they sold privately who went on to start in the race in 2013. This came only four years after they relocated.
In 2017 the Sano’s had another Derby horse in Salomon Del Valle’s Gunnevera but this time the pair were there every step of the way.
“Gunnavera gave us our first Triple Crown experience. Ever since the Derby preps in Miami, you have to qualify with certain points, and he was able to win the Fountain of Youth and that was a race that got him into the Derby,” Alex said. “That for us, meant a lot having our first Derby horse. After that, going to the Preakness and competing there.”
The son of Dialed In would go on to finish seventh in the 2017 Kentucky Derby before running fifth in the Preakness Stakes (G1). He also saw two starts at the World Championships including a runner-up finish in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). His earnings sit at $5,561,800 for his career 21 starts.
“For me I can’t find the words either in English or Spanish to describe how much it meant to have a Derby horse,” Sano said. “I was able to find him myself for only $16,000, when sometimes you have to spend millions to run in such a race.
“Having the chance and luck to have a horse like him, it meant the world to me… Every day it felt like I was waking up in a dream. I had to pinch myself to see if it was a dream or if it was reality.”
According to Alex, his father has a knack for knowing a Derby horse, and this year is no different.
“My dad has told me three times in his life, ‘This is going to be our Derby horse.’ He mentioned that with Falling Sky who ran in the Derby before Gunnavera,” Alex said. “He mentioned that about Gunnavera when he came to the barn, and he said that with Simplification. Knock on wood, he has a good taste for Derby horses and was able to get all three of them right.”
Currently approaching his last year at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Alex is one of his father’s biggest champions and has been a constant in the business even throughout school.
“I enjoy this business, I always have,” Alex said. “I always went with my dad to the racetrack in the summers and on the weekends when I didn’t have school.
“I tried to assist him with everything that I could… I’m one of my dad’s right-hand men in the business. I’m a little bit of his assistant trainer, bloodstock agent, veterinary medicine assistant, so I accommodate all of them and it’s great.”
For the Sano team, working together is crucial to their accomplishments. Without the grooms, exercise riders, and many others who help to keep the horses taken care of, they would not be able to compete at the top levels.
“It’s like a bicycle, the way I see it,” Alex said. “Every little component has to work for the bicycle to be able to go around. A handle that is off, a screw that is loose, a tire that’s flat, you’re not going to have the same performance as a guy who has a perfect bicycle.
“I enjoy just being here and being able to help my dad in any way that I can.”
For this year’s Derby, the Sano’s are delighted to be back at the historic track with a horse of such caliber and are looking forward to watching their hard work play out.
“(Simplification) is such a humble horse to be around. He’s so curious and smart. When you come in the morning he will look and follow you around the barn,” Alex said. “I’ve spent time with his groom Carlos and he’s taught me a lot about him.”
They also may have a little extra luck on their side. Simplification is stabled in the very same stall as 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos .
“Having him here in this stall at Churchill Downs makes me so proud,” Alex said. “Having the chance to spend the week here, I am very thankful for Dr. House, the associate dean at the University of Florida veterinary school, to give me the opportunity to be here with the horse at the end of the semester. It’s just awesome, there’s no other words to describe it.”
As Sano reflects on his chance at winning the Kentucky Derby and the lifetime of overcoming hardship it took to get there, he is content where he is but would not think twice about doing it again.
“For me this is a blessing from God, having a second shot at the Derby…. We had it in 2017 with Gunnevera, he was third or fourth choice in the race and now (we) have it again with Simplification,” Sano said. “(He is) a proven horse, a graded stakes winner, who has competed against many different favorites. Being there in the starting gate on the first Saturday of May and knowing that you have a shot at the race is the beginning of a great story.
“Hopefully the future is a promising and beautiful one… I’m very excited for the years to come. I think the immigration from Venezuela to (America) to give my family an education and a second opportunity at life was more than worth it. If I had to do it again, I would, with no hesitation.”