Ocala’s Jena Antonucci Became First Woman to Train a Triple Crown Race Winner When Arcangelo Took the 2023 Belmont Stakes
BY JOANN GUIDRY
Prior to this year’s $1.5 million Belmont presented by NYRA Bets (Grade 1) on June 10, 43 women trainers had run horses in Triple Crown races with none managing to come away with a victory in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness (G1) nor Belmont.
For Ocala-based trainer Jena Antonucci, being number 44 changed all that when Arcangelo captured the 155th Belmont Stakes. She became the first woman trainer to saddle the winner of a Triple Crown race, smashing one of the oldest glass ceilings in sports.
And the subsequent video footage of Antonucci, owner Jon Ebbert of Blue Rose Farm and Arcangelo’s entourage watching the race unfold on a monitor in their grandstand box – with Antonucci ardently cheering on Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano and Arcangelo during the stretch run of the mile-and-a-half classic–became part of racing lore.
In the final moments of the mile-and-a-half Belmont, FOX Sports television cameras caught Antonucci ardently encouraging Castellano aboard Arcangelo.
“Come on Javy! Come on Javy! Come on Javy!,” Antonucci yelled at the monitor between glances down the track as Arcangelo surged to the lead in deep stretch. In the instant Arcangelo and Castellano raced under the wire, Antonucci suddenly collapsed to one knee, grabbed, and for a brief moment, rested her head on the back a nearby chair in an apparent rush of emotion, gratification and joy before erupting into the hugs and elation of all nearby.
Moments later, while racing through the Belmont grandstand to meet Castellano and Arcangelo in the winner’s circle, Antonucci provided another memorable moment of inspiration when stopped by FOX Sports’ Tom Rinaldi.
“Never give up,” Antonucci said to Rinaldi. “And if you can’t find a seat at the table, build your table.”
Moments later, a jubilant Antonucci raised the Belmont Stakes trophy above her head in triumph.
“I actually went to my knees on purpose. I needed a moment to catch my breath,”
Antonucci, 47, later said to The Florida Horse. “We had a plan with Arcangelo, executed that plan and it all came to fruition. It was all so special.”
And following Antonucci’s historical victory, the media blitz began immediately with post-Belmont Stakes interviews.
“Despite our confidence in our plan, I had arranged to fly back home on Sunday,” Antonucci admitted. “I drove from the airport to Ocala, unpacked my bag, repacked my bag, drove back to the airport and flew right back to New York for a Monday morning television interview.”
In the days following her Belmont Stakes win, Antonucci logged dozens of interviews with print, television and online media. She graciously gave of her time and in the process became an ambassador for the Ocala-based Thoroughbred industry. Among Antonucci’s interviews were those with such media outlets as FOX, CBS, NBC, News Nation, Newsmax, USA Today, Thoroughbred Daily News, Blood-Horse, Paulick Report, Ocala Gazette and Horse Capital TV.
“I am, we are, grateful and appreciate what happened,” said Antonucci, who with Katie Miranda owns and operates horseOlogy based at Paul Bulmahn’s GoldMark Farm. “I’ve been proud to share our story.”
FLORIDA ROOTS & BEAUTIFUL BEGINNINGS
Born and raised in Hollywood, Florida, Antonucci was such a horse-crazy kid that she was riding by the time she was three.
“Where I grew up was rural at the time and there were a lot of horses around. I would annoy my mother while we drove up and down those roads where I could see horses,” Antonucci recalled. “There was a riding stable nearby and when I was three, my mother finally stopped and signed me up for lessons.”
Antonucci was a quick study and showed on leadline before she was four years old. When she was nine, her parents bought her an appendix Quarter Horse mare named A Hidden Star.
Young Antonucci and a Hidden Star
“Star was green-broke, not the best horse for a kid. But I learned a lot from Star and we grew together,” Antonucci said. “We became a great team and competed in equitation and hunter/jumper classes for years. Then I leased her out to other young riders, so they could learn from Star too. For years, I loved hearing from riders about the impact Star had had on their riding careers.”
Competing at shows in the south Florida area and along the East Coast, Antonucci began riding off-track Thoroughbreds that she had retrained.
“When I was about 10, my grandfather was racing Thoroughbreds at Belmont Park and Saratoga. It was his Thoroughbreds that I first began retraining and showing,” Antonucci said. “I continued to show on retrained Thoroughbreds through high school and beyond. And as time went on, I became increasingly curious about the Thoroughbred racing industry and that led me to Ocala.”
In 2001, Antonucci moved to Ocala to work at Satish and Anne Sanan’s Padua Stables, which was located in south Marion County. The showplace Thoroughbred operation had previously been David Hutson’s Silverleaf Farm.
“D. Wayne Lukas had moved his California-based breaking and training operation to Padua and I was put in charge of that program,” Antonucci said. “Now I was training young horses to become racehorses and that gave me a whole new perspective. It was all valuable experiences to add to my continuing education about racehorses.”
Antonucci also worked with Nadia Sanan and her Padua Stables-based retraining Thoroughbreds for second careers program.
“It was a continuation of what I had been doing since I was kid. I thought I was important to help these off-track thoroughbreds find new homes and careers,” Antonucci said.
After leaving Padua Stables, Antonucci spent four-and-a-half years as an equine veterinary assistant with Ocala Equine Hospital.
“Those years were key to learning more about horses and their health. I was accumulating more valuable experience,” noted Antonucci. “Finally, I felt like I was ready for another chapter and established my Bella Inizio Farm. Bella inizio means ‘beautiful beginning’ in Italian and that’s what it was for me.”
Antonucci’s initial focus at Bella Inizio Farm was broodmares, foals, weanlings and yearlings. She also began her own breeding program and joined the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association. While she shifted what she offered at her farm to clients, she continued to breed horses and currently has two broodmares.
“After awhile, I did miss that racetrack connection and started doing rehab work at my farm,” Antonucci said. “Then I got my trainer’s license in 2010.”
Fittingly enough, Antonucci’s first career win as a trainer was with Florida-bred Irish Wildcat on March 7, 2010, at
Tampa Bay Downs. She recorded her first stakes winner when Flattermewithroses won the 2012 Voodoo Dancer at Belmont Park. In addition to Flattermewithroses, Antonucci has also to date trained stakes-winners Five Star Momma, Gemonteer, Grade 3-winner Doctor J Dub and, of course, Grade 1 stakes-winner
A BIT OF HORSEOLOGY MAGIC
In November, 2022, Antonucci partnered with Katie Miranda to establish horseOlogy. Fiona Goodwin is part of the horseOlogy team as the assistant trainer.
“Katie and I were looking to merge and expand what we each were doing. We needed more space to do that and we were fortunate that Paul Bulmahn worked with us to make that happen at GoldMark,” Antonucci explained. “We call it a conception-to-retirement operation. We handle everything related to raising, training and racing Thoroughbreds. We also offer bloodstock advising, pinhooking and micro-investing in racehorses.”
In addition to the horses at horseOlogy and Antonucci’s Bella Inizio Farm, the partners maintain a string at Gulfstream Park.
“We’re very fluid in our approach and dividing up our work duties,” Antonucci said. “We do what’s needed to take care of business, whether it’s at the farm, at the sales or at the racetrack.”
Antonucci and Miranda were at the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale when they met Jon Ebbert, a Pennsylvania-based real estate investor who races as Blue Rose Farm.
“We were in the back ring checking out yearlings. Katie whistled as one went by and that got Jon’s attention,” Antonucci recalled. “We introduced ourselves and exchanged a few sarcastic comments, so we hit if off.”
The next day, Ebbert paid $35,000 for a 2020 gray ridgling by Arrogate out of Modeling, by Tapit. A May foal, the yearling was sent to a farm to grow. In February 2022, Ebbert sent the ridgling, soon to be known as Arcangelo, to horseOlogy.
“We take a horse-first approach. I don’t like to place the burden or expectation on a horse. And I don’t like to disappoint people along the way into thinking we might have the next big horse,” Antonucci explained. “With Arcangelo, wanted to give all the time we could to develop and planned out his training accordingly. We obviously saw all his breezes and how he was doing his work in the mornings. We could see him coming together.”
Jon Ebbert, Jena Antonucci, Javier Castellano and Arcangelo – Adam Coglianese
Arcangelo made his first start on December 17, 2022, finishing second to Aaraj in a maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park. On Jan. 14, 2023, he finished fourth in a maiden special weight won by Kingsbarns, who would win the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby two races later, before rebounding to break his maiden on March 18 at Gulfstream Park.
“His maiden win showed us that he was putting it all together. He found his gear, got low and stretched out coming down the stretch,” Antonucci said. “It all just seemed to click for him.”
In his next start, Arcangelo did indeed prove that things had clicked for him. In only his fourth career start, Arcangelo won the Grade 3 Peter Pan by a determined head on May 13 at Belmont Park.
“When you’re an underdog, you have nothing to lose by asking questions,” Antonucci said. “The Peter Pan Stakes was the opportunity to ask the question about Arcangelo. He showed us he wanted it, and you can’t teach that as much as we think we can.”
Next came the Belmont Stakes and the rest is history. Literally.
Arcangelo, whose earnings stood at $1,067,400, following the Belmont, is, at this writing, stabled at Saratoga Race Course with a possible start in the Grade 1 Travers there on Aug. 26.
“We know what the calendar is and what’s where, but we’ll let Arcangelo tell us what’s next,” Antonucci said. “The Travers is on our radar, but we’ll just see how it plays out. That was the approach leading up to the Belmont Stakes and that’s what we’re going to do again.”
While Antonucci gives a big generous nod to the horseOlogy team for the history-making victory in the Belmont, she also gives credit where credit is due.
“It’s Arcangelo. It’s the horse, his honesty to us and his heart,” Antonucci said. “I will forever be indebted to him. It’s always all about the horse.”