Alessandro "Alex" Sano is getting an education on two fronts. The 20-year-old biology and pre-vet major at the University of Central Florida also is a key part of dad Antonio Sano's racing operation that includes Gunnevera, who has been entered for Saturday's Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course.
Alex Sano took an evening flight May 2 from Orlando to Louisville immediately after his last final exam of his sophomore year in college. After rushing to the airport, he said he finally felt stress-free after that last class. Then he landed and got caught up with Gunnevera's scheduled run in the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
"And when I got to Louisville, all the stress started again because of the Derby," he said. "It was very hard. During that last finals week, I studied more than six hours a day. Between study times, every break I dedicated to the horses. I'd go to BloodHorse, Horse Racing National, Daily Racing Form, and read about horses and watch Kentucky Derby replays: American Pharoah , Nyquist , Monarchos. I watched to see horses who came from the back, what chance they had in the Derby. Yeah, I'd say the horses distracted me a little bit from the studies.
"I knew physically I couldn't help out the horse, because I'm not the exercise rider and wasn't really involved in the horse at the time because I was in Orlando. But I wanted to get a feel, what to think about, what to expect before the race, our chances in the race. Honestly, when I got to Louisville, it was more than I expected," he added.
"It's a very limited experience, world-wide, to be in the Kentucky Derby. And for a college student to be there? It's one in a million to get to that point. The walkover from the barn to the paddock was unbelievable. Hopefully we get to go again, next year or in a couple of years. But the first time you do the walkover is something you can't put in words. It starts with just stepping on the track. All of a sudden you look up and you see more than 150,000 people looking at you, taking pictures of you. You feel, Wow. You feel like a Hollywood star."
Gunnevera's seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby has done nothing to lessen Sano's enthusiasm for Gunnevera's scheduled start in the Preakness.
Bearing down on organic chemistry might seem daunting any time of the year, let alone when you've got a Kentucky Derby horse but Sano has become adept at multi-tasking, which includes playing soccer. Since finishing the semester, he has been with Gunnevera except for two days when the colt vanned to Pimlico and he and his father returned home to South Florida to check on the stable at Gulfstream Park West.
"Usually I'm able to juggle it," Alex said. "This last semester was a really tough one because I had one of my toughest classes yet, plus being involved in the whole Triple Crown business—and also being an athlete playing for the UCF club soccer team. It was a pretty busy semester, but luckily I was able to balance it out and get good grades and keep my GPA high.
"On a typical day in college, I have classes from 9 in the morning until 2, then soccer practice 4-6 p.m. After that, I dedicate time to homework until midnight. In the gaps, I balance looking at horses in the sales, reading pedigrees. And at least one weekend a month, I go to the barn with my dad to look over the horses, to see what we were able to get at the auctions, to see what was a good buy or not."
Said Antonio Sano: "When he's not at college, he's with me at the barn every day."
Alex moved with his family (including mom Maria Cristina, younger brother Maurizio, and kid sister Marielena) to South Florida from their native Venezuela seven years ago after his father was kidnapped for a second time and held for ransom for 36 days. Making the transition easier was the relocation to the Broward County town of Weston, nicknamed "Westonzuela" and where about 10% of the population was born in Venezuela. The community on the edge of the Everglades was described by the Sun-Sentinel newspaper as a "suburban oasis filled with opportunity for exiles whose economic dreams were crushed and lives threatened under President Hugo Chavez's leftist-populist rule."
While he went with his father to the racetrack in Venezuela, Alex says Maurizio was more into it, hitting up the jockeys for their goggles and whips.
"When we came to the United States, I started getting more interested," Alex said. "I said, 'Wow, this is big business with big prosperity, big money involved. This is a fun sport.' I started following horses from 2010 until now. I follow the pedigrees of horses. I've made some statistics the last couple of years about dams and sires, and it's been giving us pretty good results in the barn."
When Antonio went to Keeneland's 2015 September yearling sale, he gave his older son a list of all the horses that the stable's owners had interest in buying.
"I was able to narrow the list to 20, 25 horses," Alex said. "Gunnevera was one of them. The reason I picked Gunnevera was because Dialed In was a big horse when he ran in Florida (winning the Florida Derby (G1)), which is one of the factors I like. He also was a freshman sire and I knew (his offspring) wouldn't cost much."
Dialed In is a son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft . Alex said he also liked that the colt's broodmare sire was 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winner Unbridled.
"I told my dad, 'Don't think twice. It would be a good shot to take,'" he said.
Guess so. The Darby Dan Farm stallion Dialed In's stud fee of $15,000 is $1,000 less than what Gunnevera cost. The colt has earned $1,170,000, amassed from victories in the Saratoga Special Stakes (G2), Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (G3), Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) and a late-running third in the Florida Derby (G1), won by Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming.
Alex always knew he'd go to college, where he says he has a grade point average of 3.7 on a 4.0 scale. He hopes to attend veterinary school and become a racetrack vet.
"My parents always told me, 'Regardless of how much you love the sport, you have to go to college,'" he said. "We are living the American dream. That's because of the hard work my mother and dad put in when they migrated to the United States."