Majority owner Salomón del Valle was on hand to watch Gunnevera’s final work before the Kentucky Derby on Friday morning at Churchill Downs, and the Venezuelan native could not help but glow after the 3-year-old son of Dialed In cruised through a easy five furlongs in 1:03 3/5, hardly breaking a sweat. Gunnevera’s exercise rider never really asked for run and the colt stayed relaxed throughout the breeze, though he did pick up the pace a bit heading to the wire. Trainer Antonio Sano said the work was exactly what he’d been looking for.
“This horse is a champion,” del Valle added. “I’m very confident in the horse, he is just extraordinary. The best horse I’ve ever owned.”
Del Valle has had horses with Sano since the nearly the beginning of the trainer’s career in the late 1980’s, up to 50 at a time, and still lives in their native country of Venezuela. He owns Gunnevera in concert with 25 percent shareholders and horse racing newcomers Jamie Diaz Mengotti, a native of Spain, and Guillermo Guerra, son-in-law of del Valle, under the banner of Peacock Racing Stables. The three men, guided by Sano’s expertise of more than 3,000 winners, put up $16,000 to purchase the colt at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. He has since won a trio of graded stakes, including this year’s Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and earned more than $1.1 million.
“My horse is an extraordinary horse, the most intelligent I have trained in my entire life,” Sano said. “He is a horse that when he’s finished working, his respiration is completely normal, as if he’d never worked at all. I have won a lot of races, a number of classics and a lot of stakes, but never have I trained a horse of this quality, with this much heart. He has a lot of heart.”
Both Sano and del Valle recall watching the Venezuelan colt Canonero II win the 1971 Kentucky Derby on television, and Sano began his dreams of roses that very day. Del Valle was a bit more realistic, having watched the groundbreaking race on television in Illinois, but still, the dream lingered at the back of his mind.
“In Venezuela, even if your owner has a horse running on the day of the Kentucky Derby, he will not come to the track,” Sano laughed. “Everyone is watching the Kentucky Derby on the televisions.”
Last year, horse racing fans in the South American country were able to root on Majesto, trained by Venezuelan native Gustavo Delgado. That son of Tiznow finished second to Nyquist in the Florida Derby, but entered the Kentucky Derby starting gates as a solid longshot at odds of over 50-1 under Venezuelan jockey Santiago Gonzalez. The pair finished off the board, but it wasn’t for a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the fans.
This time around, the Venezuelan hopes are hung on the backs of Gunnevera and his jockey, another Venezuelan, Hall of Fame-elect Javier Castellano. With an active social media presence, Sano’s racing team has been keeping the colt’s adoring public well-informed about his condition leading up to the Kentucky Derby.
Despite being kidnapped twice in his home country in 2009 – including a period when he was held for ransom for 36 days – Sano takes a lot of pride in his heritage. He is hopeful a Kentucky Derby victory would bring hope to the people of Venezuela in what are desperately violent times, and perhaps even approach a move toward political stability.
“Twenty years ago, Venezuela is the best country in the world,” Sano said wistfully. “Maybe one day it can go back.”
The late-running colt will likely go off at odds of less than 10-1, despite running third in the G1 Florida Derby in his last out. Del Valle believes Gunnevera had several factors working against him that day, including a speed-favoring surface at Gulfstream Park, a very wide post position and some bumping near the head of the lane.
For the first Saturday in May, del Valle said Castellano would like to break from the five-hole, while Sano is hopeful for anywhere between the eight and the 12 spot. The extra distance and very long stretch at Churchill will certainly work in Gunnevera’s favor, but Castellano would have to keep him out of trouble.
“I know that the race he has to run is not an easy race,” said Sano. “There are 20 contenders, and each has a chance, any one of them could get up to win. Right now, my horse is one of those with a chance.”
After Friday morning’s “maintenance” workout, Gunnevera and del Valle spent some time canoodling at the front of the stall, the owner feeding him bits of hay from his hand and telling the colt how very special he was.
“If he doesn’t want to talk to you, he’ll let you know,” del Valle said. “Today, he wants to talk and be friends. He’s just such a smart horse.”
Watch Gunnevera’s workout here:
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