HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Kentucky Derby fever is rising in Venezuela.
Antonio Sano, a prominent trainer who emigrated from Venezuela to prove himself in the United States, is well on his way toward accomplishing that after Gunnevera rallied from last to dominate the $400,000 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes by 5 ¾ lengths from runner-up Practical Joke on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
“Viva Venezuela!” some fans shouted as Sano, 54, exited the winner’s circle. He was so excited that he could barely express himself.
“I’m very emotional right now,” he said. “Very hard.”
As important as it was for him to win the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, a shot at the Kentucky Derby on May 6 would be so much larger than that.
“It’s very important for me to win the race for my family and for Venezuela,” Sano said after his son, Alexandro, began assisting him as an interpreter.
Sano noted that Javier Castellano, who rides Gunnevera, has never won the Kentucky Derby during his illustrious career. “This year, first time,” he said.
His bargain purchase earned 50 points in the Fountain of Youth, catapulting him to the top of the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings with 64 points according to the system employed by Churchill Downs to determine what is likely to be a full field of 20 horses for the Kentucky Derby.
Gunnevera, named for a small town in Spain, has inspired a high level of confidence almost from the time Sano purchased him for $16,000.
“I like the look this horse has and the way he walks,” he said of his reasons for acquiring the chestnut son of Dialed In in behalf of Peacock Racing Stables when so many others dismissed him. Most of the stock in his South Florida-based 60-horse stable is similarly priced.
After Gunnevera produced his first victory in his third career start, Sano stepped him up to the Grade 2 Saratoga Special at Saratoga Race Course and was rewarded with a one-length decision in mid-August. He then rebounded from a fifth-place finish in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland Race Course to take the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot in November to close a 2-year-old campaign in which he won half of his six starts for earnings of $771,000.
Gunnevera was bumped on the first turn and eventually finished second to front-running Irish War Cry when he made his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 2 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park. Everything about the Fountain of Youth was different.
This time, Irish War Cry was forced to chase pacesetting Three Rules and weakened badly to be seventh. Castellano, after urging his mount to stay closer to the front in the Holy Bull, learned a valuable lesson from that and allowed his colt to perform on his own terms.
“He comes from way back with one run,” Castellano said. “I took my time with him.”
Gunnevera was last in a field of 10 after the opening quarter of a mile before gradually quickening. He made a bold four-wide move around the final turn, passing Three Rules and Practical Joke as if they were standing still.
The victor was timed in 1:44.25 for the 1 1/16-mile race. He paid $10.40 for a $2 win wager. The 13-race program, which offered nine stakes, eight of them graded, generated a record Fountain of Youth handle of $26.6 million.
“He galloped out very strong,” Castellano said. “I like that.” Sano intends to run Gunnevera in the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on April 1.
Trainer Chad Brown was encouraged by Practical Joke’s first start of the season. “He’s in play now,” he said of his colt’s Derby prospects. “He has a race under his belt. He should move forward off it.”
Irish War Cry lost for the first time in four starts. “My instincts and first reaction is that possibly I ran him back too quick,” trainer Graham Motion said.