Belmont Stakes: Jena Antonucci could make history for women

Belmont Stakes: Jena Antonucci could make history for women
Photo: Ron Flatter - edited

Elmont, N.Y.

As owners and riders, women like Penny Chenery and Marylou Whitney and Julie Krone have worked their way into the winner’s circle at Triple Crown races. But training a classic victor is a glass ceiling still unbroken. Since 1937, 30 women have tried 47 times only to come up short.

Enter Jena Antonucci. The 47-year-old native of South Florida who used to ride show horses and work for D. Wayne Lukas would make history Saturday if Arcangelo were to win the 155th running of the Belmont Stakes. At 8-1 in live wagering Friday night, bettors figured he, the horse, and she, the trainer, had a shot.

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So what would it mean to be that woman to set that precedent? It is a question that, in one form or another, Antonucci has been asked countless times this week.

“I’d probably rather be at the farm,” she said. “I understand what the week means and the opportunity. Definitely grateful.”

Antonucci said she does not have a stock answer to that question. The question. With the same meaning each time, she answered it with one set of words for Horse Racing Nation’s Ron Flatter Racing Pod and another set for Fox Sports, which brought 13 production personnel to Barclay Tagg’s barn this week. That is where Antonucci set up shop this spring with Arcangelo. It is where she sat on hay bales with Maggie Wolfendale-Morley for a half-hour interview that will be excerpted in Saturday’s national telecast.

“I’m not good at rehearsed answers,” she said. “That’s my problem.”

What she called a problem actually may be refreshing to readers and listeners and viewers who get to witness Antonucci’s path to topple a gender barrier.

“I think it means more to the eyeballs looking in,” Antonucci said. “Yes, I’m a female, and yes, I train horses, but it is not the definition of what we do. It’s the definition of this industry. It’s not the definition of what drives me. They coexist, and so I understand what it is, obviously. I have a brain.”

Antonucci arrived at this threshold of history with Arcangelo, a 3-year-old ridgling who cost owner Jon Ebbert of Blue Rose Farm $35,000 as a yearling. The son of Arrogate had a rapid rise this spring. After breaking his maiden in March on his third try at Gulfstream Park, he closed from sixth place last month to win the Peter Pan (G3), the traditional Belmont Park prep for Saturday’s classic.

“I think from what we saw from him in the Peter Pan, he warrants the opportunity,” Antonucci said. “So we’ll let him continue to step forward and show that he belongs.”

Antonucci did not see Arcangelo so much as having a quick rise to prominence since the weather got warmer. She was there, too, at Gulfstream for a second-place debut in the slop in December and a flat, fourth-place finish in a one-turn, maiden mile in January, both with José Ortiz riding.

Antonucci said the slow rise to overnight success might have been a good thing.

“More than anything he got the extra seasoning by not breaking his maiden,” she said. “We had thought he would have done it pretty quickly. I think the troubled trips offered him some of the seasoning that he would have potentially had at higher-level or allowance or other kind of races. So I don’t think he is missing on adversity and opportunity. It’s just that he happened to get the win when he did.”

That came with Javier Castellano, who rode the maiden victory that included a physical brush with a first-time starter coming out of the gate. In the Peter Pan, Castellano took Arcangelo through an eyeball-to-eyeball duel with Bishops Bay, losing the lead late and then regaining it even later. In the last four strides Arcangelo fought his way in front, and he got to the finish line first by the bob of his head.

The Peter Pan, though, is a one-turn race at 1 1/8 miles in which horses carry less weight than they will in the two-turn, 1 1/2-mile Belmont. Arcangelo and Castellano add eight pounds to get to 126 on Saturday.

“Those are all things that we talked about in consideration if this was a goal we wanted to do,” Antonucci said. “We’ve done a lot of morning work with him to be sure he’s comfortable with the two-turn idea. The last breeze with Javier was very focused on that second part.”

That last workout was clocked at 48.8 seconds, the fastest of the 11 half-mile breezes Tuesday morning at Belmont Park.

“Javier said himself that he gave him one little chirp, and he got more for that second turn,” Antonucci said. “I think our focus is there, and his maturity is there. I don’t believe the mile-and-a-half will be an issue.”

As a horse who comes from off the pace but not necessarily from far back, Arcangelo might appreciate some honest speed in front of him Saturday after he breaks from post 3 in the nine-horse field. The question is just how much will be provided by the likes of Preakness winner National Treasure, long shot Il Miracolo and maybe rail starter Tapit Shoes.

Then again, Antonucci pointed out that Arcangelo closed on a 48.83-second half and 1:13.23 three-quarters of a mile to win the Peter Pan. Not exactly blazing fractions.

“He showed in the Peter Pan he doesn’t need the 46 half,” she said. “I am so fortunate to not really have to stress about the front-end pace for this guy. I think it will sort out naturally, and I will let Javier micromanage that on the racetrack. Obviously, the inside horse (Tapit Shoes), they’ve already talked about how he’ll go as much as he can, and you get the speed on the outside of us (from National Treasure and Il Miracolo), and they’ll have to clear us. I imagine we’ll sit chilly, you know, in touch with the pace.”

When Antonucci is not absorbing all the attention and questions she has been getting this week, she runs HorseOlogy, a business that she started nearly a year ago in Florida with second-generation horsewoman Katie Miranda. They give owners a haven for horses to be taken care of after their professional careers.

“The easiest way to put a bow on it is from conception to retirement,” Antonucci said. “Anyone who wants to breed something all the way through its racing career and is looking for a horse to be properly retired, whether it’s a pasture pet or going on to have an extra career, our owners know that all those parts and all those facets are important and that they will have a point of contact and transparency and honesty through all of those stages.”

Clearly there is more to life for Antonucci than racing a talented 3-year-old in a $1.5 million classic. Right now, though, she is all in for what could be a huge moment in sports history. And women’s history.

“From a logical perspective, I understand what it means and the importance to life,” Antonucci said. “But I think with life comes perspective and balance. If it pushes a little girl to work that much harder in her journey, because she saw a glimmer of hope later on, then I will own that. I will take that as a gift, and I will do my best to foster that for those people.”

 Women training in Triple Crown HorsePlace  Race
Mary HirschNo Sir13th1937 Kentucky Derby
Ada RothSenecas CoinDNF1949 Kentucky Derby
Mary KeimMr. Pak6th1965 Kentucky Derby
Judy JohnsonSir Beau7th1968 Preakness
Judith ZouckSamoyed6th1980 Preakness
Dianne CarpenterBiloxi Indian12th1984 Kentucky Derby
Sarah LundyMinstrel Star11th1984 Belmont
Patty JohnsonFast Account4th1985 Kentucky Derby
Patty JohnsonFast Account4th1985 Belmont
Dianne CarpenterKingpost14th1988 Kentucky Derby
Dianne CarpenterKingpost2nd1988 Belmont
Nancy HeilFighting Notion5th1990 Preakness
Shelley RileyCasual Lies2nd1992 Kentucky Derby
Shelley RileyCasual Lies3rd1992 Preakness
Dean GaudetSpeakerphone14th1992 Preakness
Shelley RileyCasual Lies5th1992 Belmont
Penny LewisHegar9th1993 Preakness
Cynthia ReeseIn Contention15th1996 Kentucky Derby
Cynthia ReeseIn Contention6th1996 Preakness
Cynthia ReeseIn Contention9th1996 Belmont
Kathy WalshHanuman Highway7th1998 Kentucky Derby
Jean RofeSilver's Prospect10th1998 Preakness
Akiko GothardK One King8th1999 Kentucky Derby
Jenine SahadiThe Deputy14th2000 Kentucky Derby
Jennifer PedersenGriffinite5th2001 Preakness
Nancy AlbertsMagic Weisner3rd2002 Preakness
Nancy AlbertsMagic Weisner4th2002 Belmont
Jennifer PedersenArtax Too11th2002 Belmont
Jennifer PedersenNew York Hero6th2003 Preakness
Lisa LewisKissin Saint10th2003 Preakness
Linda RiceSupervisor5th2003 Belmont
Kristin MulhallImperialism3rd2004 Kentucky Derby
Kristin MulhallImperialism5th2004 Preakness
Jennifer PedersenSong of the Sword11th2004 Kentucky Derby
Jennifer PedersenSong of the Sword9th2004 Preakness
Linda AlbertWater Cannon10th2004 Preakness
Jamie SandersTeuflesberg17th2007 Kentucky Derby
Alexis BarbaMake Music for Me9th2010 Belmont
Kathy RitvoMucho Macho Man3rd2011 Kentucky Derby
Kathy O'ConnellWatch Me Go18th2011 Kentucky Derby
Kathy RitvoMucho Macho Man6th2011 Preakness
Kathy RitvoMucho Macho Man7th2011 Belmont
Linda RiceKid Cruz8th2014 Preakness
Carla GainesBolo12th2015 Kentucky Derby
Kelly RubleyAlwaysmining11th2019 Preakness
Linda RiceMax Player3rd2020 Belmont
Vicki OliverHidden Stash14th2021 Kentucky Derby

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