When they make a movie of Venezuelan thoroughbred trainer Antonio Sano’s life — as surely they must — it likely might begin with one of the most successful horse trainers in his nation’s history, chained to a wall in a roofless room, no windows, no doors, and dwindling hope.
That was Sano’s life for 36 harrowing days in 2009. On the morning of July 24, he left his family’s home in Valencia and a sport utility vehicle intercepted him, seven men springing out of the doors. They smashed his windshield, dragged him from his car and into captivity, hoping for a ransom.
It wasn’t the first time Sano had been kidnapped. Months earlier, he had been taken hostage in his own car for most of an afternoon, being forced to withdraw money at one ATM after another until the kidnappers were satisfied.
This time, it would take much more time, and much more money, before he was free.
That the same tragic story could include Sano today, outside Barn No. 41 on Churchill Downs’ backside, smiling for pictures with fans or admirers of his colt Gunnevera, a contender Saturday for the Kentucky Derby, is something endearing about this sport, which fades out of public consciousness for long stretches, but flares up each spring with stories you can barely believe.
Just when you think you’ve heard it all, Sano tells you about his captivity, how sometimes the only water he got while chained was if it rained. Sometimes they gave him food, mostly rice or chicken wings. Most of the time they didn’t. He lost 40 pounds. He didn’t know where he was.
The worst part was when his kidnappers would enter his cell, masked, and put a gun to his head, threatening to kill him.
“Big guns,” he noted.
He said he came to believe that he would not be killed, that they wanted ransom money for him more than anything.
“They told me, they need me alive,” Sano said. “You’re dead, no money. They wanted money.”