Kidnapped twice, trainer Antonio Sano eyeing Kentucky Derby

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Getting to what will be his first Kentucky Derby is on Antonio Sano’s mind almost constantly these days.

To say he took an unusual route would be an understatement.

Kidnapped on two separate occasions eight years ago in his native Venezuela – once for just a few hours, the other for 36 harrowing days, both times being freed after paying ransoms that he prefers not to disclose – the trainer and his family came to the United States to start their lives over in what they hoped to be a safer environment.

Fast forward eight years, and the 54-year-old Sano has a horse named Gunnevera, the favorite for Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and one that seems to already be among the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

“I had a little problem,” Sano said. “Now I have a big opportunity.”

A “little problem.” That’s what he calls being held twice against his will, inevitably wondering if he would ever see his family again. Now he’s a few weeks away from stepping onto the grounds of Churchill Downs for the first time, assuming Gunnevera – a winner in four of his last six starts, with three of those victories coming in graded stakes races – gets out of this weekend with no problems.

Long before Gunnevera ever saw the track, Sano knew there was something special.

“I bought the horse in September 2015,” Sano said. “I worked the horse three or four times and I said, `This is my horse.’ He’s good.”

Gunnevera already has enough points to assure himself of a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. Still, Sano hopes he’s done enough to set Gunnevera up for a win in the Florida Derby – the race that Nyquist used to prep for his win at Churchill Downs a year ago.

“It’s very important, this moment,” Sano said.

These are very troubled times for Venezuela, and that isn’t new.

The U.S. Department of State has long warned Americans from going to Venezuela, saying “violent crime – including murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, and carjacking – is endemic throughout the country.” Just this week, Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled it can take over the powers of congress in a move that some said was a step toward installing a dictatorship in the South American nation.

Despite it all, Sano is proud of where he’s from – and what he’s come from.

“Venezuela is my history. America is my now,” Sano said. “At this moment, I’m working for my kids. My kids are what it’s all about for me. I’m working for their better.”

It’s no coincidence that Gunnevera’s ownership group includes two Venezuelans. Sano, of course, is Venezuelan. So it only makes sense that the jockey be Venezuelan as well – and that jockey is Javier Castellano, the winner of the last four Eclipse Awards as the top rider in the game.

Castellano called Sano to ask for the job. It doesn’t always work that way at Derby time.

“Maybe it’s meant to be,” said Castellano, who has ridden in 10 Kentucky Derbys. “Who knows?”

Sano doesn’t speak often about what he went through, and when he does he keeps certain details private. He said he’s still very leery of his family’s safety, and takes extra measures to help ensure their security in the U.S.

But Castellano knows the tale well, and raves about the person Sano is.

“It’s amazing,” Castellano said. “One thing you have to realize is to appreciate life. You help that kind of guy. He’s always helpful, very humble guy, always appreciates the opportunities people give to him. Hey, he’s lucky to be here. So you just enjoy the ride.”

Appeals court strikes down federal horseracing rules act

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NEW ORLEANS — Congress unconstitutionally gave too much power to a nonprofit authority it created in 2020 to develop and enforce horseracing rules, a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled Friday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, or HISA, is “facially unconstitutional.”

The authority created by the act was meant to bring uniform policies and enforcement to horseracing amid doping scandals and racetrack horse deaths. But the 5th Circuit – in two rulings issued Friday – ruled in favor of opponents of the act in lawsuits brought by horseracing associations and state officials in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

The Federal Trade Commission has the ultimate authority to approve or reject HISA regulations, but it can’t modify them. And the authority can reject proposed modifications.

Three 5th Circuit judges agreed with opponents of the act – including the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and similar groups in multiple states – that the setup gave too much power to the nongovernmental authority and too little to the FTC.

“A cardinal constitutional principle is that federal power can be wielded only by the federal government. Private entities may do so only if they are subordinate to an agency,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel that ruled in the Texas case.

The same panel, which also included judges Carolyn Dineen King and Kurt Engelhardt, cited the Texas ruling in a separate order in favor of horseracing interests and regulators challenging HISA in a different case.

The chair of the horseracing authority’s board of directors said it would ask for further court review. Friday’s ruling could be appealed to the full 5th Circuit court of the Supreme Court.

“If today’s ruling were to stand, it would not go into effect until January 10, 2023 at the earliest,” Charles Scheeler said in an email. “We are focused on continuing our critical work to protect the safety and integrity of Thoroughbred racing, including the launch of HISA’s Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program on January 1, 2023.”

The ruling was criticized by Marty Irby, executive director of the Animal Wellness Action organization. “Over the course of three Congresses, the most brilliant legal minds on Capitol Hill addressed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s constitutionality and ultimately decided that the Federal Trade Commission’s limited oversight was sufficient,” Irby said in an email.

Among the subjects covered by the authority’s rules and enforcement were jockey safety (including a national concussion protocol), the riding crop and how often riders can use it during a race, racetrack accreditation, and the reporting of training and veterinary records.

Animal rights groups, who supported the law, pointed to scandals in the industry involving medication and the treatment of horses.

Duncan wrote that in declaring HISA unconstitutional, “we do not question Congress’s judgment about problems in the horseracing industry. That political call falls outside our lane.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, hailed the ruling on Twitter, calling HISA a “federal takeover of Louisiana horse racing.”

Fractional interest in Flightline sells for $4.6 million

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Keeneland says a 2.5% fractional interest in Breeders’ Cup Classic champion Flightline has sold for $4.6 million during a special auction before the start of its November Breeding Stock Sale.

Brookdale Farm’s Freddy Seitz signed the ticket for an undisclosed client, the track announced in a release. The sale comes a day after ownership of the 4-year-old son of Tapit retired the unbeaten colt following his record 8\-length victory in Saturday’s $6 million, Grade 1 Classic at Keeneland. Flightline likely locked up Horse of the Year honors with his fourth Grade 1 victory in six starts by a combined victory margin of 71 lengths – dominance that has drawn comparisons to legendary Triple Crown champion Secretariat.

Flightline will begin his breeding career next year at Lane’s End Farms in Versailles, Kentucky, but a stud fee has yet to be determined. West Point Thoroughbreds, part of the bay colt’s ownership, offered the fractional interest. Seitz said the buyer wanted to “make a big splash” and get more involved in the business.

“With a special horse like (Flightline) all you can do is get involved and then just hope for the best,” Seitz said in the release.

“There has never been a horse that has done what he has done for however many years, back to Secretariat. You just have to pay up and get involved, and this is kind of what he’s thinking.”