By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun
1:01 PM EDT, May 13, 2014
Ron Sanchez's roots in horse racing go deep into his childhood in Caracas, Venezuela, where his maternal grandmother took him to the races every weekend at La Rinconada, the country's largest and oldest track.
"I was five years old and we'd walk all the way to the track, it's like two miles," Sanchez recalled Monday at Pimlico. "I fall in love [with horse racing]. Once you get here [to the race track], it's impossible to get out."
Though Sanchez also dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player — he was a member of the Venezuelan national team in his late teens and said he "almost signed" a pro contract — the love of racing never left.
A quarter of a century after buying his first horse, the now 43-year-old Sanchez will achieve another longtime goal when Social Inclusion goes to the starting gate in the 139th Preakness Stakes Saturday.
Just the name of his horse — derived from the exact words Sanchez read in a poem by the late Portuguese writer and Nobel Prize winner Jose de Sousa Saramago — says a lot about the former power-hitting third baseman.
Dressed in jeans, sneakers, a Keeneland baseball cap and a sweat-stained beige shirt with the name of his 20-year-old stable inscribed, Sanchez looked more like one of Social Inclusion's handlers than its owner Monday.
As the chestnut colt cooled off after a morning workout, Sanchez walked around shed row, keeping busy. He evened out clumps of dirt. He handed a groom a small brush. He fretted — and sweated.
"We are nothing without back side guys," Sanchez said. "These guys make me happy because my horses are healthy, well-treated and they show on the track what they have here. I love helping them. We're a team."
Said Luis Contreras, Social Inclusion's Toronto-based jockey: "He likes to be here. He's different [than many owners]. Most owners just talk to the trainer. He likes to talk to the jockey, the walkers, the grooms. He's more connected."
Sanchez also has roots in Maryland, planted during an 18-month period during which he was living and working in Ocean City. He had come to the resort town to meet up with friends from home who raved about the surfing and beach life.
"They said, 'You got to check out this place'," Sanchez said. "I fall in love [with the lifestyle]. We're going there Tuesday, even if we don't win [the Preakness]. I want to go and say hello to everybody."
One of Sanchez's favorite memories of Ocean City is of going to Ocean Downs in nearby Berlin.
"I went there every single day," he said.
Another Maryland memory — as clear as the day was blurred for those he was with — was attending his only Preakness, in 1996.
"It was crazy, I was in the infield cheering for Skip Away," Sanchez said. "We came like 20 [people] and I was the only one watching the races. I had to take a bus all the way back to Ocean City because all my friends got drunk and I didn't have a car."
Sanchez returned to Caracas in 1998 when his grandmother was ill, and he became more serious about his career as a horse owner. One of the first horses he purchased after going back home was Bulldozer, which Sanchez said won his first "eight races or something" and made $250,000.
"At that time the exchange rate was very good, I pay my bills and I started saving my money," Sanchez said.
Since naming the first horse he bought as a teenager after his mother, Sanchez has named many of his horses after family members. His 20-year-old Rontos Racing Stable combined his first name with those of his father and brother. Among his horses is Tomas The Bowler, named "because my father loves bowling," Sanchez said.
Sanchez has named several that included his wife's name, Lily, and one after a precocious niece.
"My sister's daughter is named Gabby and she's kind of rough — I named a horse Artichoke Gabby — kind of bittersweet," he said with a laugh.
Eventually the horses in his Rontos Racing Stable — also named for a horse-like animal in one of the Star Wars movies — outnumbered his family. He now has 65 after moving his operation from Venezuela to Florida two years ago.
After carving out a living by taking inexpensive claimers to the winner's circle, Sanchez purchased Social Inclusion for $60,000 as a yearling. When the horse won his first two races by a combined 171/2 lengths, Sanchez was offered $8 million to sell.
Unable to strike a deal to keep a share of the horse and, more importantly, retain 85-year-old trainer Manny Azpurua, a fellow Venezuelan whom he grew up admiring, Sanchez decided not to sell and remains Social Inclusion's sole owner.
"To tell you the truth, this is the dream of a lifetime [for Azpurua]," Sanchez said. "That's why I didn't sell the horse. I wanted to keep it for him. Of course, when you have somebody who's going to buy your horse, they're going to want to take it. The best for the horse is keeping it with Manny because he knows it very well."
Sanchez said that Social Inclusion is completely recovered from a foot injury that was discovered the morning of a May 3 race at Gulfstream Park. Social Inclusion, who also finished third in the Wood Memorial, was the first in this year's Preakness field to arrive on Saturday.
"Since the Wood, he grew up a lot," Sanchez said. "He turned 3 May 1, he's a baby. Hopefully we were the first ones to be on the ground [in Baltimore] and we're ... the first to hit the wire," Sanchez said. "That's going to be nice for us."
Sanchez knows what it would mean for his business to add a victory in his first Triple Crown race. He is even thinking about what he would say if Social Inclusion wins.
"I feel like a Marylander about this place," he said Monday. "I want to win this race badly because I have a lot of things to say about the state of Maryland."
If that happens, Sanchez will also think about his late grandmother, Cruz Mejias, who died in 2002.
All those long weekend walks to the track in Caracas. The horse he named for her years back.
"She's taking care of me and my horses," Sanchez said, tears starting to well in his eyes.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun