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.