Peacock Racing Stable's Gunnevera was last of the G2 Fountain of Youth field heading into the first turn, but jockey Javier Castellano rode him very confidently and the 3-year-old responded. Turning for home, the son of Dialed In drew even and quickly exploded past rivals Three Rules and Practical Joke, drawing away to win by 5 3/4 lengths, even in the short stretch at Gulfstream. Trained by Antonio Sano, Gunnevera covered 1 1/16 miles on the fast main track in 1:44.25, earning another 50 points to add to his previous total of 14. With 64 points, Gunnevera is the new leader on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
For updated point standings, check here: 20170304 Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard
“I feel very happy,” said Sano. “The last race he lost the race because he got bumped [on the turn into the stretch]. This was different – more horses, different speed. I thought 100 percent that he would win today.”
As expected, the speedy Three Rules went straight to the front of the field, but Irish War Cry, who set a slow pace in his Holy Bull romp, refused to settle behind that leader and was a bit rank in a tight second position early on. Made You Look and Takaful moved together in the third position, with Lookin for Eight a solid fifth turning into the backstretch. Gunnevera, meanwhile, had been bounced around by Huracan Americo even before the first turn, and was knocked off stride to settle into dead last through the first quarter mile.
“There was a lot of speed in the race and the way it set up was perfect,” Castellano said. “That's what I was looking for. He's the kind of horse where you have to make one run. You can't chase the pace, because you're not going to finish. I tried to do that a little bit last time, but I learned my lesson.”
After early fractions of :23.43 and :47.18, Three Rules and Irish War Cry were nearly even on the front end, with Takaful and Made You Look still hanging strong in the stalking position and a big gap back to Lookin for Eight. Suddenly, Three Rules made an early move to jump out to a two-length lead for Luis Saez, and Irish War Cry never really fired from that point on.
Gunnevera and Castellano had been picking up rivals steadily down the backstretch, but the colt appeared to lose a bit of momentum when he changed to his left lead for the journey around the far turn. Practical Joke, who had been in sixth through the early stages, made a bold move mid-way through the far turn, streaking to the outside of his rivals and quickly joining Three Rules at the front of the field. Castellano kept riding Gunnevera four-wide and he regained his best stride, but was still four lengths off the leaders at the quarter pole.
Practical Joke tried to pass a very stubborn Three Rules at the head of the lane, but Three Rules battled back. Gunnevera never stopped coming, however, and even though the colt faced the challenge of the short stretch run of the 1 1/16-mile distance at Gulfstream, the change to his right lead saw Gunnevera explode past his rivals with ease. Gunnevera kept going all the way through the wire, winning by 5 3/4 lengths, as Practical Joke just got up by a half-length over Three Rules for second. Talk Logistics was up for fourth.
“I took my time with him,” Castellano continued. “He's a very professional horse. He's a 3-year-old horse but he acts like a 6-year-old. He's an old pro. The way he was in the post parade, he was very composed and he waited in the gate. He broke from the gate and I could have been a little closer to the pace and chased a little bit to secure my spot in the first turn but I didn't. I took my time with him. I let him follow the pace and he started picking it up little by little. Turning for home, I knew I had it. I knew because of the way he did it when I asked him, he responded very well.”
Trainer Chad Brown was pleased with Practical Joke's runner-up effort off the long layoff since November.
“I was feeling pretty good around the turn there,” Brown said. “I thought the horse ran a great race considering the layoff. Gunnevera was much the best today — hats off to them. That horse was really impressive. I'm happy with my horse. I think I got the race I needed into my horse. Jose [Ortiz] is very happy about the race. He continues to learn a little bit about this horse. He was happy with his effort, as I was. He's in play now. He has a race under his belt. He should move forward off of it. Everything is on the table [for his next race]. A lot of it is going to depend on how the horse is training, who is running where, and what I'm most comfortable with.”
Bred in Kentucky by Brandywine Farm and Stephen Upchurch, Gunnevera was a $16,000 Keeneland September Yearling sale purchase. Selected by Sano at the sale, the colt broke his maiden in his third start at Gulfstream, then shipped to Saratoga to win the G2 Saratoga Special. Though he was a disappointing fifth behind Classic Empire in the G1 Breeders Futurity at Keeneland, he returned in fine style to dominate the G3 Delta Downs Jackpot in his final start as a juvenile. A lack of pace saw him finish a deceptively good second in the Holy Bull last out, and the Fountain of Youth makes his third graded stakes victory in just eight career starts. Overall, Gunnevera boasts earnings of over $1 million.
“I am the happinest man on earth,” said Solomon Del-Valle, one of three of Gunnevera's owners. “I thank God, Antonio Sano and Javier Castellano. All three champions. This is my biggest win. I've been around horses since I was 5 years old. I've had as many as 40 horses in Venezuela. Antonio bought this horse for $16,000. Incredible. I love this horse. I get up every day at 4 a.m. to see the horse. I was 100-percent sure he would win today.”
Trainer Antonio Sano is a Venezuelan native, and in fact, was the winningest trainer in the country's history, with 3,338 victories to his name, according to thoroughbreddailynews.com. Kidnapped in 2009, Sano was a captive for 36 days before his wife was able to ransom him. The incident brought Sano to the United States in 2010, building a local reputation with horses owned by Venezuelan owners and those aware of his record. Gunnevera, named for a small town in Spain, is his first major horse in the US, and the colt seems to have a legitimate chance to bring his trainer to the Kentucky Derby.
“Castellano never win the Kentucky Derby. For me, it's the first time, This is the year,” Sano said. “I'm very proud for my team and Peacock Racing. I'm very emotional.”
Gunnevera is expected to make his next start in the G1 Florida Derby on April 1.
Watch the race replay here:
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