For people who see her day in and day out on the racetrack in New York and Florida, trainer Jena Antonucci’s historic win in the Belmont Stakes on June 10 was a win for horse girls everywhere.
Antonucci-trained colt Arcangelo came to the 1 ½-mile third jewel in the Triple Crown somewhat under the radar. He hadn’t competed in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness (Maryland) but had won the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan Stakes (New York) on May 13, a popular route for distance-type horses who don’t bloom early enough in the season to dream of roses. He faced eight rivals, seven of whom came from the barns of either Eclipse Award-winning trainers or Hall of Famers.
Luckily, the striking gray didn’t know about any of that. He tucked in along the rail behind early leaders and bided his time with jockey Javier Castellano, creeping quietly up on Preakness winner National Treasure. As they came into the sandy Belmont stretch, Arcangelo looked his rival in the eye and left him in the dust.
Antonucci says she’s not usually one to show too much emotion, but in the race’s final strides, as she realized that she had become the first female trainer in 155 years of Belmont Stakes history to win the race, she was briefly overwhelmed.
“It’s the horse, and I am so grateful,” she told media minutes later. “I will forever be indebted to his honesty to us, his heart, and he is why you get up seven days a week. I didn’t get a lot of sleep the last few nights, I’m not going to lie. I’m so grateful.”
Horse racing, which has been plagued with nagging and very public questions about safety and welfare in recent weeks, had been waiting for a good news story to remind fans of why the sport can be beautiful. As Antonucci planted a big kiss on Arcangelo’s nose on the way to the winner’s circle, it seemed it had finally found it.
For Antonucci, years of getting up before the crack of dawn and living and breathing Thoroughbreds all day is just an extension of her childhood. She grew up in South Florida, where she took part in her first horse show on a leadline before she was 4 years old.
“I had amazing opportunities growing up,” she said. “I was at the perfect farm for me for probably eight years plus. Just growing up, all of us being crazy horse girls, jumping jumps around the barn, getting dirty and swimming horses. My trainer at the time always had everyone doing sleepovers and painting jumps—just what I think growing up around horses should be.
“But it taught me the responsibility of taking care of a horse, what that commitment meant and learning how to be an athlete, how to be a competitor,” she added. “There’s so much you absorb as a child that you don’t even realize.”
As she grew up, Antonucci progressed to show-oriented barns with an appendix Quarter Horse mare named A Hidden Star in tow.
“My parents thought it would be a great idea to buy me a green horse for my ninth birthday,” she said with a chuckle. “She actually ended up being a rockstar in South Florida. She ended up winning zone awards.”
Throughout her career in the hunter/jumper ring, Antonucci rode with Donna Phillips, Jane Fennessy at Carriage Hill, and Daryl Pirtle Portela at Top Brass Farm.
Antonucci’s New York-based grandparents got into Thoroughbred racing as owners when she was 10 or 11, and their retired race horses often ended up with Antonucci’s hunter/jumper trainers to prepare for second careers. In those days, before the influx of warmbloods, Antonucci remembers that the hunter/jumper equestrian world was “a Thoroughbred industry with non-Thoroughbred divisions.” She found it a fascinating challenge to figure out what made each horse tick and give them the tools to succeed in a new career.
As she got older, Antonucci began retraining and selling off-track Thoroughbreds herself. She graduated high school and hopped into the cab of an 18-wheeler taking show horses north, then showed Thoroughbreds all summer. In Florida, she worked for Top Brass Farm, Charlie Weaver, and later managed and taught lessons at Errol Equestrian Center before a four-year stint as a veterinary technician.
In her time in the show world, Antonucci saw the pendulum swing from off-track Thoroughbreds to warmbloods at the upper levels, to something of a comeback for OTTBs at some amateur levels.
“I love being able to brag about Thoroughbreds,” she said. “I think the biggest thing is everyone wants to be able to longe something to make it tired. And with a Thoroughbred, you’re just getting him more fit. Sometimes I think for trainers in big programs it’s easier to find a warmblood because it’s easier to get to the show ring versus having to tap into the horse mentally and challenging them mentally to get them not dwelling on things.”
Even after Antonucci transitioned into the Thoroughbred racing industry in 2000, off-track horses continued to be a part of her career trajectory. She began breaking and training young horses for Padua Stables in Ocala, Florida, where she helped owner Satish Sanan launch an in-house aftercare program to get retired race horses retrained for new careers. Later, Antonucci joined the board of the Florida TRAC program to continue to assist horses in finding their next career after racing.
Antonucci eventually opened her own facility in Florida in Bella Inizio Farm, where she initially specialized in breeding stock but transferred into breaking and developing young horses. In 2010—incidentally the same year she rode in her last USEF-recognized show—she took out her trainer’s license to saddle her own runners and got her first winner March 7, 2010, at Tampa Bay Downs.
While she doesn’t have much time for recreational riding these days, many mornings she can be found out on a track pony, getting an up-close look at her horses working, and sometimes giving them a kiss and a cuddle afterward.
“I think because I rode for so long I can see a lot of it,” she said. “I get a lot of feedback from riders who say, ‘How’d you know what that felt like?’ and I think after being in the tack for close to 40 years, you know what it’s supposed to be, and see this feels like this, that feels like that. I think that’s an asset.
“I encourage my riders to really talk to me,” she continued. “They may not know how to express it—what they think they’re feeling may not be it—but I can extrapolate what they’re saying and the feedback they’re giving because I have such a library in my own head.”
The show world taught Antonucci that the mental side of an athlete’s development is just as important their physical training. She makes ample use of round pens when stabled on track to give horses as much leisure time as she can. She believes that freedom has nurtured Arcangelo’s big personality.
“He’s a total ham,” she said. “He’s just ridiculous, to be honest. He’s a colt; he can nip and do those things, but he can lean into people and receive the love and the attention. You can literally scratch by his tail, and he wraps around like a dog.
“I was laughing because [Eclipse Award-winning photographer Barbara D. Livingston] was up for Belmont week, and I said, ‘He’s going to find you wherever you are.’ And literally, he’d walk off the track and be like, ‘Do you want this side of me or that side of me? Do you want my ears this way?’ ”
Her own training as an athlete normally has Antonucci pretty “in the pocket” on game day, but in the glow of post-Belmont glory, she hasn’t been afraid to express the emotional bond she has with all her horses.
“It’s honest,” she said. “I think when you’re speaking from a place of honesty, it’s very easy. If it’s resonating with people, it’s because they’re looking for that too.
“The journey we’re on with him is such a blessing, and I just want to be a good steward of it and do the best I can with his story,” she added. “My accomplishments that come with it are secondary. We will stay focused on him.”