When Gunnevera stormed home in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII), exultation was the feeling a few minutes later in the winner’s circle at Gulfstream Park. It was the same feeling among several hundreds of Venezuelans present at the Hallandale track. A horse with all-Venezuelan connections had just reached the top spot in the point standings of the Kentucky Derby, establishing himself as a serious contender to take home the roses on the first Saturday in May.
Gunnevera, a $16K purchase as a yearling at the Keeneland September 2015 sale (he was the second horse to go to the sales ring), will run in the Grade I Florida Derby on April 1 and, if everything goes as planned, the chestnut son of Dialed In will have a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
With eight starts to date — and one more if he participates in the Florida Derby — Gunnevera will probably be one of the most experienced horses in the Kentucky Derby. His debut, a five-furlong sprint over a sloppy surface, came at Gulfstream Park on June 10, 2016. He was rather slow at the break and came from some ten lengths back to finish second, beaten by another first-time starter — Three Rules, who won the first of five consecutive outings and eventually became the 2016 Florida-bred juvenile and Florida Horse of the Year.
Trainer Antonio Sano was happy with Gunnevera’s first outing, noting that he could be a horse for longer distances, but didn’t hesitate to enter the maiden in the 5 ½-furlong Birdonthewire Stakes, where he again faced Three Rules. It was an unfortunate race, as the colt was pinched back at the break, raced dead last, and encountered some traffic while trying to improve position. He finished fourth, beaten 6 ½ lengths, but didn’t disappoint his connections.
Fourteen days later, Gunnevera broke his maiden coming from behind in another 5 ½-furlong sprint, again hinting at the ability to go further. It was Sano’s confidence what made him send the colt to Saratoga to run in the Grade II Saratoga Special Stakes at 6 ½ furlongs. Riding Gunnevera for the first time was four-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Javier Castellano. In a five-horse field, the son of Dialed In raced last, ten lengths behind his four rivals, who blazed through fractions of :21-3/5 for the opening quarter and :45 for the half. The speed collapsed and Gunnevera exploded in the final furlong to roll past Recruiting Ready to score an impressive win.
Sano’s confidence had been rewarded.
Gunnevera was initially pointed to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI), but his first two-turn try in the Breeders Futurity (GI) at Keeneland on Oct. 16 suggested he would be in too deep. With that in mind, Sano opted to send Gunnevera to Delta Downs to run in the Delta Jackpot (GIII), which offered a great purse and 10 points towards the Kentucky Derby.
Reunited with Castellano, Gunnevera took advantage of a torrid pace and flew by his tired rivals to obtain his second graded win.
Perhaps still under the radar, the chestnut closed his juvenile campaign with three wins (two graded stakes) and a second in six outings. The main goal for 2017 was very clear: the Kentucky Derby.
After a 2 ½-month layoff, a fresh Gunnevera showed up in the Holy Bull Stakes (GII) at Gulfstream Park, where he faced the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Classic Empire, who was the post-time favorite. However, it wasn’t the champion colt that beat him, but Irish War Cry, a nice son of Curlin, who was left alone upfront while going a moderate clip of :47-4/5 for the opening half-mile. Castellano decided to move early with Gunnevera, but the strategy didn’t work. He had to steady his mount at the 3/8-pole while gaining ground on the rail and Gunnevera was not as effective running closer to the pace. It also looked like he needed quicker fractions to fire his best shot.
And a contested, fast pace was exactly what Gunnevera got in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) on March 4. Three Rules, Irish War Cry, Takaful and Made You Look were in front, while Gunnevera was ninth in the ten-horse field. Castellano knew it was a different scenario from the start and didn’t hurry his mount. Instead, he gradually asked for more from Gunnevera, who responded every time with his long stride.
He was four-wide turning for home and displayed his power down the short Gulfstream stretch, easily leaving his rivals behind while drawing away to win by almost six lengths. And the joy felt by Gunnevera’s connections in the winner’s circle that day was also felt by thousands of race fans miles away, who went wild on social media and made Gunnevera a trending topic in Venezuela in almost no time.
The gentle chestnut colt is now the Derby hope of Antonio Sano, the winningest trainer in Venezuelan racing history, who had to leave his native country after being kidnapped twice and threatened numerous times.
He is also the hope of champion jockey Javier Castellano, who has won more than 4,000 races but is winless in the Kentucky Derby, as well as owner Salomon Del Valle, whose Traffic Stud was one of Venezuela’s most prominent racing investments in the 1990’s.
But most of all, Gunnevera is the hope of a nation that is in dire economic straits; a nation with a turf industry in shambles; a nation with plenty of racing fans who cherish their stars abroad; a nation that embraced Canonero II’s 1971 Triple Crown adventure and now embraces Gunnevera in his quest for Derby glory.