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Jena Antonucci: The 2023 Belmont Winner on Breaking Boundaries and All Things Belatoga

Trainer Jena Antonucci knew she had Arcangelo primed for the 155th Belmont Stakes as she watched him stride powerfully into a stalking position behind front-running National Treasure. As the final turn loomed, it was going to be a matter of opportunity. Would her horse, seemingly with no place to go in the 11/2-mile Test of the Champion, find room to unleash the overwhelming closing kick she knew he possessed? Jockey Javier Castellano soon spotted a seam between National Treasure and the rail and implored his mount to seize the chance. Arcangelo responded with the heart of a champion, squeezing through the narrowest of openings as they turned for home.

And off Arcangelo went, dashing into history.

Not only did the Thoroughbred win Castellano his first Belmont that day, but in a male-dominated industry in which women have always scratched and clawed for opportunities, the victory meant Antonucci had become the first woman to train the winner of a Triple Crown race. A year later, the national spotlight on her continues to shine brightly. Antonucci became a role model for girls who find themselves dreaming her dream come true. Her message to them: “Just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” It took 451 Triple Crown races before Antonucci’s breakthrough; as for the Belmont specifically, she was only the 11th woman to start a horse in the race.

NBC commentator Britney Eurton describes the outcome of last year’s Belmont as “one of the most significant moments in racing history.” And she would know. Her father, Peter, is a prominent West Coast trainer, so she keenly understands the against-the-odds battle Antonucci and others have faced. “When I grew up, it was primarily male trainers,” Eurton says. “The women that you see in the sport now, especially what Jena is doing, it goes to the younger generation to show, ‘You can do this. There is a seat at the table for women.’”

“Horses genuinely make my soul happy,” Jena Antonucci recently told America’s Best Racing. “I love being around them, the smell of them, their energy.”

Antonucci and her team will be celebrated June 6 at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s Belmont Gala at Canfield Casino. It will be a special evening because Antonucci has enjoyed summers here in Saratoga Springs since she was a child. She even says that she embraces our city as a “second home.” (Antonucci, Castellano and Arcangelo also won the Travers Stakes last year—she’s only the second female trainer to do so—before the Thoroughbred retired due to an issue with his left hind hoof.) “There’s a huge sense of community and family that happens at Saratoga
and the surrounding region,” Antonucci says. “It’s not only the horse racing history but the history itself. It just feels very rooted and very much like a big, warm hug.”

After the glittering gala, Antonucci looks forward to the Belmont’s first run at The Spa. “It’s a great opportunity not only for the city but for the sport,” she says. “The energy level will be absolutely amazing.”

Antonucci’s historic wins are one piece of a small-but-mighty surge of female trainers currently taking on the Sport of Kings. Linda Rice is enjoying unprecedented success on the rugged New York circuit and was celebrated at the end of last year for producing a single-year record 165 victories, one more than David Jacobson’s mark set in 2013. She also holds the distinction of being the first woman to win the coveted Saratoga title outright—no woman had topped the standings at a major track before that—edging Todd Pletcher’s massive outfit in 2009. When as a young woman Rice told her father, trainer Clyde Rice, of her determination to follow in his (and her three older brothers’) footsteps, his response neatly sums up what it’s like for a female to eye a career in the sport: “Well, it would be a lot easier if you were one of my sons.”

Last season also saw the rise of two other women in horse racing, Brittany Russell and Cherie DeVaux. Russell, who began training in 2018, emerged as the first woman to lead Maryland’s year-end trainer standings—the mother-of-two registered 118 victories between Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, breaking the stranglehold on the top that Claudio Gonzalez had maintained since 2017. She also ranked 11th nationally for the year with 177 victories overall, and stood 16th in purse earnings with $7,999,367. For her part, DeVaux, assisted by younger sister Adrianne, also produced a banner year. She set a career high with 56 wins, and her earnings more than doubled what they had been the season before, reaching $5,558,777. “I’m loving seeing the growth,” Eurton says of the female presence in horse racing as it stands today. “We have a long way to go of course, but I do see the progress.”

Antonucci always knew her life would, in some way, revolve around working with horses. Growing up in south Florida, she rode show horses at a young age, participating in her first show before her fourth birthday. At the start of her career, she learned invaluable lessons while working for legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas, before veering away from racing. She worked as a veterinary assistant for four and a half years and then opened Bella Inizio Farm in Ocala, FL. There, she first cared for broodmares, foals, weanlings and yearlings, and then moved into rehabilitating Thoroughbreds. At last, she made her return to racing when she took out her trainer’s license in 2010. In a vivid reminder of how difficult it can be to find good stock and good opportunities, she had never started a horse in a Grade 1 race before the life-altering Belmont.  

“It’s a great opportunity not only for the city but for the sport,” says Jena Antonucci about the Belmont being run in Saratoga. “The energy level will be absolutely amazing.” (Photography by G. Sonny Hughes)

Arcangelo’s owner, Blue Rose Farm’s Jon Ebbert, has known from the start of their partnership that Antonucci had something special. The two met at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in Lexington at which Arcangelo was sold and quickly connected. Over time, Ebbert came to appreciate her for, among other things, her communication skills. In contrast, he says he heard from some of his previous trainers only when bills came due. “She’s a great trainer,” he says. “She cares about her owners. She cares about her horses.”

Antonucci’s love for all horses can be seen at horseOlogy, which she established in November 2022 with business partner Katie Miranda. Based at idyllic GoldMark Farm in Ocala, it differs from other training and ownership operations by providing every in-house service from conception to retirement. And each horse receives the same high level of care, regardless of pedigree or price. “They don’t know their value to a human,” Antonucci says. “We’ve been able to resurrect some careers because we didn’t classify them as being this or being that.”

There, she has successfully created a family atmosphere that’s indicative of her all-in approach. “She does more for people than any trainer I’ve ever worked for,” says assistant trainer Fiona Goodwin, who has been with her from the start.

While Arcangelo’s success created opportunities and allowed her to upgrade the quality of her 30 or so runners, Antonucci made sure the operation remained hands-on. “We do us really well, and so we are committed to staying who we are and not having huge numbers,” she says. “If that means we have to say ‘no’ to some opportunities, then that’s what that means. I don’t want to be a horse manager. I enjoy being a horse trainer.”

She’s excited about the 2-year-olds in her barn and hopes to unveil some of them at Saratoga’s summer meet. Time will tell whether the Belmont was a harbinger of other great things to come for her. Goodwin, for one, is convinced her boss will soon return to the grand stage of the Triple Crown races.

“She’s as good as any if not better than most of the others,” Goodwin says. “It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen again, for sure.”  

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