By Gary West

Years ago in Livonia, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, on a morning that was more or less like any other, a young woman rode her bicycle to look for—well, she didn’t exactly know what she was looking for, which must have been a strange situation for her since she wasn’t desultory by nature. She was looking for anything, or maybe nothing, simply responding to an internal cry of restlessness. She had recently been turned away by Michigan State’s college of veterinary medicine despite having a sterling record that included high grades and the imprimatur of the National Honor Society. Yes, in those days, even academia was controlled by old, white guys embarrassingly short on clues. Young women just weren’t expected to apply to a veterinary school. Or very welcome, apparently. That was a harsh reality for this daughter of a Detroit policeman. She had been resolute and unwavering: Plan A was to pursue a career as a veterinarian. That was why she strived for good grades, why she participated so heartily in 4-H, why she had taken those extension classes in animal husbandry. She never imagined and nobody ever told her that she might have need for another plan, something to tuck away in the back pocket of her jeans, just in case. And so as she rode her bike that day—and we can assume she took the high road because that’s how she travels—she might have been lamenting the wayward flimsiness of plans in general or, more likely, regretting the void in her back pocket, when suddenly and unexpectedly out of nowhere a Plan B appeared, trotting headlong in the direction of busy Middlebelt Road. She caught the runaway, an escapee from nearby Detroit Race Course, and returned the horse to its owner-trainer, who introduced her to another trainer and, as it turned out, to the racetrack. That young woman went on to become the winningest female trainer in the history of horse racing, with nearly 2,500 victories and purse earnings approaching $50 million.

But just pause for a moment to imagine the world she stepped into those many years ago. It was a world not very long removed from Hialeah in 1969, where Diane Crump became the first woman to ride in a pari-mutuel race. She needed a police escort just to make her way to the racetrack. Hecklers, she would recall, screamed for her to go back to the kitchen and cook dinner. And in Kentucky, at Churchill Downs, rather than ride with Penny Ann Early, the other jockeys had boycotted, forcing cancellations.

Of course, Kathleen O’Connell didn’t know about any of that unpleasantness when she saved a racehorse from rushing into traffic, not that her knowing would have made an ounce of difference. When she first started working at DRC, she recalls, she saw no female trainers, no female jockeys, no female exercise riders—oh, yes, there was that English girl named Jane who ponied horses, but that was the extent of a feminine presence. O’Connell’s first license identified her as a “Pony Boy.”

And now allow your thoughts to fast-forward to today’s horse racing industry in Florida. Look around; survey the landscape. Women operate the state’s two major racetracks, Belinda Stronach at Gulfstream Park and Stella Thayer at Tampa Bay Downs; two of the top breeders in the state are Charlotte Weber at Live Oak and Marilyn Campbell at Stonehedge; Valerie Dailey is the immediate past president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association; and the sport’s all-time leading female trainer, O’Connell, as well as the first woman to win a Triple Crown race as a trainer, Jena Antonucci, are both based in Florida.

Every major sport in the United States segregates competitors by gender—the NBA and the WNBA, the PGA and the LPGA, the NHL and the PWHL, the MLS and the NWSL, the ATP and the WTA, the PBA and the PWBA, the men’s tournament and the women’s tournament, the men’s this and the women’s that — except horse racing. This is the only sport that invites men and women to compete against each other. Breeders, owners, trainers and jockeys compete without reference to gender. No allowances, no concessions, no differences, but genuine, head-to-head competition on, as they say, a level playing field. Does that appeal to anybody? In a high-tech, digitized, industrialized world where fewer and fewer people connect with land or heritage or horses, horse racing’s gender-neutrality could become a point of connection and coalescence. It could become a significant strength. And Florida leads the way. In Florida, women have become pillars of support.

Antonucci and O’Connell are exactly who they intend to be and where they want to be, and they’re doing precisely what they prefer to do. In other words, they’re self-assured—preternaturally so—but they wear their confidence quietly, as if it’s their everyday uniform, which it is. Although impressive, they don’t seem very impressed with themselves. That’s all apparent within a few moments of meeting them; they make a first impression that renders any second impression irrelevant. They know who they are, and if you don’t know… well, they’re too busy to toot horns. Stan “The Man” Musial, it’s said, never used his popular nickname. One of baseball’s all-time great players, Musial never referred to himself as “The Man.” Similarly, Antonucci and O’Connell seem much more comfortable talking about their horses or their teams than themselves. About becoming the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown race, Antonucci expresses gratitude for her opportunities, but then adds, “Somebody had to do it, and it happened to be us.”

About becoming the all-time winning female trainer, O’Connell says she’s pleased and proud to have won so many races, but then adds, somebody will pass her soon, and that’s as it should be. In all of that, they’re alike, and in this too: Where some people see obstacles, they see only challenges, and that’s especially true about working in what traditionally has been a male-dominated environment.

Jena Antonucci
The first woman to win an American Triple Crown Classic

Sitting at her desk in her office at GoldMark Farm in Ocala, Antonucci jokes about being an “overnight success,” but, of course, that success was two decades in developing, or three or four, depending on when you start the meter. Strange, isn’t it, how the Triple Crown races can confer instant credibility, and even stranger, since it’s rife with delulu opinions, that television can do the same.

As Arcangelo advanced along the inside at Belmont Park and a television camera focused in on her, Antonucci became increasingly animated. “Go on by now,” she called, urging Arcangelo to pass the leader, National Treasure, “go on by.” And then, as the big gray pushed to the lead, Antonucci called out, “Come on, buddy, come on, …. Let’s go.” And then, her voice rising and cracking, as if conveyed through static, she yelled to jockey Javier Castellano: “Come on Javy, come on Javier.” With each utterance, she bounced, and then hopped, and then jumped, a little higher and faster each time as her credentials and access passes, hanging from a lanyard, danced with her in celebration. “Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” she called out, as Arcangelo approached the finish a length-and-half ahead of Forte and Tapit Trice. “Oh, my God,” she said again, exhausted and bending under the weight of all the excitement and pressure. Turning to Arcangelo’s owner, Jon Ebbert, she said, hoarsely, “We just won a Triple….” and her voice failed, swallowed up by the emotion of the moment.

And so last June, for the first time, after 30 had tried and missed, a female trainer won a Triple Crown race, specifically the 155th Belmont Stakes (Grade 1). Instantly, Antonucci became a star, her photo adorning the cover of The Florida Horse, Trainer Magazine, and Equus Magazine; she appeared in the New York Times holding aloft the Belmont trophy as if it were the heavyweight championship title belt. Even from the pages of The Guam Daily Post, she smiled engagingly. The sport’s publicists honored her with the Big Sport of Turfdom Award and The Florida Horse with the Bruce Campbell Award. All of this must have been disconcerting for somebody who insists she prefers to work if not in shadow, then at least in the background because suddenly she found herself staring into the kleig lights. She was indeed an overnight success.

Antonucci chuckles, knowing, of course, that no success can be realized overnight and that horse racing doesn’t hand out participation trophies. Her journey to success began, in fact, when she was a child growing up in what was then an undeveloped, rural area of South Florida. She first found herself astride a horse at three, she recalls, and from there it was a short ride to becoming “a barn brat.” Before she could write her own name and long before she wore the maroon and plaid uniform of the St. Thomas Acquinas Catholic School, she could put bandages on a horse. She knew even then that at the barn she had found her comfortable place, and she soon realized that she also had discovered something extraordinary within herself, a talent for listening, perhaps in silent communion, with a powerful, 1,100-pound animal.

“The connection with the horse is so special; what the horse does for the inside of a person is real,” she says, alluding to Winston Churchill (who once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”) “When you have a chance to do it, a chance to connect with a horse, that’s such a gift. That connection—it’s the most precious gift they offer. You just have to slow down and listen to them to appreciate it.”

So she grew up in “show horse land,” as she describes it, and graduated to the “moving circus” of high-level competition. Sometimes she worked with Thoroughbreds, and they impressed her so much with their athleticism and intelligence, intrigued her even, that she eagerly desired to learn more. And so she took a job as an exercise rider at Satish Sanan’s Padua Stables farm in Summerfield, Fla., where young race horses were being prepared to join Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas at the racetrack.

“Everybody respected her ability and her talent and what she was doing,” remembers Bruce Hill, who was the farm manager. “She’s hands-on. Nobody ever questioned whether she would do a good job or whether she would show up for work…. She’s a strong personality, a straight shooter, and she cuts through the bull… I have the greatest respect for her.”

Antonucci’s desk is covered with patches of layered paperwork, reminders that there’s a business to run here. A few yards away, Katie Miranda, an Ocala native, leans back in her chair as she sorts through the notes and papers on her desk. The women are business partners in HorseOlogy, the company they started two years ago that takes a comprehensive and transparent approach to everything equine, from conception to retirement, including various options and paths along the way: Breeding, foaling, breaking, pinhooking, rehabilitation, sales, training, racing, all culminating with Encore HorseOlogy, a non-profit for retired and repurposed horses. Miranda, whose father was a successful jockey in the 1980s, generally stays at the farm; another member of the team, assistant trainer Fiona Goodwin, remains at the racetrack, meaning Gulfstream Park for the moment, by way of Ireland; and Antonucci’s everywhere. And then there’s Lucy, a.k.a. Lucy the Terrorist, a diminutive terrier-type of unknown provenance who moves anxiously back and forth like a metronome between the two desks, beseeching the women for attention. Smiling at Lucy, Antonucci tries not to encourage terrorism.

“I think it’s really important to listen to the wind,” she says, pointing out that the show horse world simply wasn’t her “forever.” And so in 2010, Antonucci took out her trainer’s license. It was an acorn of a beginning. On March 7, Irish Wildcat became her first winner, proving best in a maiden-claiming affair at Tampa Bay Downs. Antonucci had two starters that year; they raced eight times, with two wins and three thirds.

In 2012, when she took her small stable to New York, she got “her brains beat out,” as she puts it. At Saratoga, in 12 starts, she didn’t get into the winner’s circle, never got close. Despite the slow start and Saratoga’s humbling tutorial, she refused to be discouraged—“I don’t process fearful,” she explains; “I’m just not wired that way”—and so moved on to Belmont Park in the fall. There, she continued to collect short straws, but at least had a couple of runner-up finishes. And then, in her 30th start in New York, on Oct. 5, in the Voodoo Dancer Stakes, with a lightly raced maiden, Antonucci stunned the great announcer Tom Durkin, as well as every other race-watcher.

“It’s Flattermewithroses,” Durkin called, his voice rising with surprise, “coming away with the lead at huge odds. On the wire, Flattermewithroses is going to pay one-hundred and eight dollars to win.”

That was Antonucci’s first victory in New York, as well as her first stakes victory. Sometimes moving quickly isn’t nearly as important as moving in the right direction, and her career was definitely moving forward. Over the next several years, she enjoyed minor but meaningful successes, with, for example, stakes winners Five Star Momma and Gemonteer, as well as an erstwhile claimer named Doctor J Dub.

When he moved to her barn in 2016, Doctor J Dub had spent most of his career running near the bottom of the claiming ranks, twice being offered for $8,000. Sure, he had some issues, Antonucci explains, such as refusing to train around a turn — yes, that’s an issue — but most of all, she says, “He had been lied to, and people didn’t know how to deal with him and wouldn’t listen to him.” In his third start for his new trainer, Doctor J Dub won the Bob Umphrey Turf Sprint at Gulfstream Park at 28-1. A few months later, in the Grade 3 Turf Monster (Grade 3) at Parx, he gave Antonucci her first graded stakes victory. Known as the “Harem Boss” or simply “Dub,” the 14-year-old gelding occupies a special place in her affection; a special place, too, at GoldMark, where he’s comfortably retired.

With the creation of HorseOlogy, Antonucci began stepping back, however slightly, from training. The industry didn’t seem to appreciate horsemanship, in her view, as much as it probably should; the mega-stables and the billionaire owners seemed to dominate, which wasn’t healthy for the game. It seemed like a perfect time to step back from training and focus more on mirific outcomes. And then Arcangelo came along.

At the Keeneland September sale in 2021, Antonucci met Jon Ebbert, a Pennsylvania businessman who purchased a son of Arrogate for $35,000. Named for St. Michael the Archangel, the young horse was a late foal (May 11) and was going to require some patience.

It’s impossible to know, of course, what would have happened if Ebbert and Antonucci had never met or if somebody else had purchased the gray ridgling. But speculation can enhance appreciation. For one thing, the horse might have been named for a K-Pop band—Monsta X, for example, or Exo—instead of for the guardian prince who battles Satan on behalf of justice and mankind. The youngster probably would have raced at Saratoga as a 2-year-old, and since he was too immature for such an early start to his career, he probably would have become either speed happy or totally discouraged. And even if he didn’t race early at two, he probably would have been pushed onto the road to the Kentucky Derby after he won for the first time, in March, in his third start at Gulfstream Park, where he drew clear by more than three lengths and completed a mile in 1:34.82. There was still time to squeeze in a major prep, earn some points, and make a roseate appearance for the gratification of all the egos and investors involved, for surely by this point there would be investors. That’s the thing about high expectations: They can soar higher and higher and take you too close to the sun. Or take a young racehorse there.

But none of that happened—or almost none of it. Arcangelo did go to Saratoga, but only for an educational experience. He “was such a kid he needed to grow up and learn,” Antonucci recalls. Neither she nor Ebbert intended to race Arcangelo until he was three, and they didn’t expect to see his best until, well, this year.

As it turned out, he developed more quickly than expected. Making his debut in December at Gulfstream, Arcangelo hesitated at the gate, dropped back and then rallied from last to finish second. In his next outing, in January, he had the nightmarish experience of a crash course, getting stopped, bumped, checked, and stopped again before finishing fourth. He never lost again. And while some owners and trainers feverishly pursued roses and Black-eyed Susans, Antonucci and Ebbert went to Belmont Park, where Arcangelo won the Grade 3 Peter Pan. A month later Antonucci became an overnight success and Arcangelo a classic winner.

“After the Belmont,” Ebbert recalls, “I wanted to save him [Arcangelo] for the Travers. I asked her [Antonucci] if he’d be fit enough, … and she said, ‘Absolutely.’”

With 11 weeks between the Belmont and Grade 1 Travers, many observers questioned the move. No, that’s not quite right: Just about everybody questioned the move, except those who knew Arcangelo’s trainer. There’s too much time between races, and the horse won’t possibly be ready, the critics carped; he can’t maintain fitness for 11 weeks without a race, and wasn’t she just an overnight success… and so went the skepticism. But Antonucci knew the horse, and Ebbert knew Antonucci.

“Everybody questioned it, but she was never in doubt,” Ebbert says, recalling his trainer’s confidence.

In what turned out to be the final race of his career, Arcangelo gave his best performance. Everything before this had been preparatory, even the Belmont, for the Travers attracted what was arguably the best field of 3-year-olds to meet in 2023. Everybody agreed, all the pundits and ersatz pundits, that the Travers would determine the championship. Forte, the juvenile champ of the previous season who was the runner-up in the Belmont, was the betting favorite again; Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (G1)-winner Mage, who skipped the final event in the Triple Crown, and Preakness (G1)-winner National Treasure, who faded after leading for more than a mile at Belmont Park, could argue with a victory that they deserved the title. Graded stakes-winners Disarm and Tapit Trice also lined up in the starting gate.

The Travers became Arcangelo’s coronation. The late foal that wasn’t expected to race at two or to find his best stride until he turned four had improved in every race, each time taking a step forward in his development and each time lifting his level of performance up a notch or two, and then it all came together on August 26, fittingly it now seems, in the race his sire won by 13 1/2 lengths while setting a track record. Castellano put Arcangelo in the clear on the outside during the early running, a couple lengths behind the leaders, and then advanced four-wide in the second turn. When called upon at the top of the Saratoga stretch, the big gray quickly spurted away from the best horses of his generation and then held his advantage to the wire, emphatically proclaiming his superiority, securing the championship and inspiring track announcer Frank Mirahmadi to call, “Congratulations, Jena Antonucci. What a training job!”

Kathleen O’Connell
Winningest female Thoroughbred trainer in American history

Success, like greatness, can present itself in various garments and can play Sousa or Pachelbel. Antonucci worked inconspicuously and quietly for many years until she burst in on the national awareness during the summer of 2023. Kathleen O’Connell, on the other hand, has been a mainstay in Florida racing for decades.

On a recent morning at Tampa Bay Downs, O’Connell explains that yes, of course, she’s proud of all the victories and all the horses she has developed, but most proud of her consistency and reliability. Ask anybody in Florida horse racing: She’s reliable as the sunrise. Rain or shine. Well or ill. She’s there, with her horses: in the paddock to saddle, at the barn to feed, on the rail to supervise. Her stable has averaged 87 victories and $2.14 million in earnings each year for the last 10. Look back even further, and she has averaged 83 wins and $1.8 million each year for the last 20. That’s how you get to be the all-time leader.

She arrived at the racetrack this particular morning at 4:45. At Gulfstream, where the track opens earlier for training, she generally walks into the shedrow at 3:45. She splits her time between the two, putting in many hours and countless miles.

“It’s my choice,” she says. “I’ve sacrificed relationships, family time, free time… I get maybe three days off a year. This is a very demanding business. It’s seven-days-a-week; it’s holidays. Even when you’re away, you’re on the phone dealing with something. You can get to the barn at 3:30 in the morning and work your ass off all day long, and it still might not happen for you. No guarantees. But this is my choice, and I love it… Some women collect jewelry, and some women collect men, but I collect horses.”

That’s how you get to be the all-time leader.

When she caught that runaway and got an invitation to DRC, she “had no idea about the racehorse world.” But how tough could it be, she remembers thinking, if they just run in circles? Very tough, as it turns out, but, then again, so is she.

Her racetrack career, like most, began on the end of a shank, walking hots. But with her show-horse experience, O’Connell was soon galloping horses and eventually made her way to Florida to break babies for Sugar Hill Farm and Sherman Armstrong. Looking back on those days and knowing circumstances could have blown her in other directions, she says she was “very, very blessed” to always work with “really good people.” As an exercise rider in 1976, she first came to Tampa Bay Downs, only then it was called Florida Downs, and in the 1980s she began training.

O’Connell cites many owners who have contributed to her success, such as Vicki and Larry Stumpf of Blackacre Farm in Davie, Fla., and the late John Franks, a five-time Eclipse Award winner. But it was the late Gilbert Campbell, along with his wife, Marilyn, who first “trusted” her, she says, to train the kind of talented horses that would get her noticed.

As they were developing Stonehedge in Williston, Fla., and looking for a trainer, Marilyn recalls, farm manager Larry King recommended a young woman who had a knack with young horses. Symbiotic fireworks resulted; the partnership thrived spectacularly. As Stonehedge became one of the state’s leading farms, O’Connell became the sport’s all-time leading female trainer.

Blazing Sword produced the first salvo of fireworks. In August of 1996, a month after his maiden victory, Blazing Sword won the Florida Stallion Stakes Dr. Fager division by six-and-a-half lengths and a month later the Florida Stallion Stakes Affirmed. At Keeneland in October, he ran second in the Breeders’ Futurity (G2), a half-length behind Boston Harbor, the eventual juvenile champion. The next season, Blazing Sword and O’Connell travelled around the country with the Campbells to take on some of the best horses in the country. Blazing Sword finished second to Pulpit in the Fountain of Youth (G2), skipped a trip to Kentucky because of illness, and later journeyed to Saratoga, where he ran fourth in the Travers (G1), behind Deputy Commander, Behrens, and Awesome Again. The Campbells’ home-bred finished third in the Super Derby (G1), as well as the Hollywood Derby (G1), and when he took the Calder Derby (G3), he gave O’Connell the first graded stakes victory of her career. He later won the Widener (G3) and the Washington Park Handicap (Grade 2) and finished his career with $1,184,055 in earnings.

As a 2-year-old in 2002, Ivanavinalot won five of her first six outings, her only loss occurring in her second start when she hit the gate before the break, left there tardily and then got stopped attempting to recover. Still, her career began with a dazzling display of talent. The home-bred by the Campbell’s West Acre had seemed an unlikely candidate for either stardom or fireworks. A diminutive filly, she was named for a grandchild’s mispronounced effort to express a heartfelt desire for victory, and she was, well, crooked.

“She was so crooked, God bless her, she walked like a duck,” O’Connell says, remembering one of her favorite horses. “I must have had eight X-rays taken of her knees.”

Nevertheless, Ivanavinalot was a jet, with three consecutive stakes victories for contrails. That’s three stakes wins by a total of 29 lengths — just to clarify what a jet’s contrails look like. And so all the arrangements were made for a pilgrimage to the Breeders’ Cup at Arlington International near Chicago, Ill. Transportation and hotel rooms were booked. The Campbells had prepared for a catered party at the farm, something appropriate for a jet that’s about to take off. And then the telephone call came.

“It was one of the toughest calls I’ve ever made,” O’Connell remembers. Ivanavinalot hadn’t emptied her feed tub that morning, which was unusual. She didn’t have a temperature, but when she went to the track for her routine gallop, she didn’t seem herself. That’s when O’Connell made the phone call; a blood test revealed an elevated white blood cell count.

In her 2003 debut, Ivanavinalot finished second in the John Deere Oaks at Santa Anita. Returning to Florida, she was the runner-up in the Davona Dale (G2) before winning the Bonnie Miss (G2). Again, speculation can enhance appreciation: Had she been in different hands and traveled to Arlington, what might have happened? The decision not to go to Chicago was obviously the right one. Now, though, Ivanavinalot probably isn’t so much remembered for being a juvenile jet as for being the dam of the great Songbird.

Danny Mellul has been a successful jockey’s agent for many years. He met O’Connell long ago at Calder, when she was winning her first training title and becoming the first woman ever to top the standings there. She also has sat atop the standings at Tampa Bay and for several years has been the leading trainer of Florida-breds, but, Mellul says, she’s so focused on caring for her horses that he doesn’t know if “winning titles means anything to her.” And when she’s in the winner’s circle with her horse, even if it’s a claimer, “she’s full of bubbles,” as if she’s winning for the first time and not the all-time leader.

“I’ve never seen anybody so focused,” he says. “She watches everything, sees everything. She’s very professional, she takes care of business, and everybody respects her. She wins wherever she goes.”

In 2015, O’Connell took eight horses to Keeneland for the Breeders’ Cup meeting, where they all ran well, recording two wins, three seconds, and a third in eight starts. One of those runner-up finishes was especially noteworthy, for it was Lady Shipman’s narrow loss in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1).

“She was a plain Jane kind of horse,” O’Connell recalls, “a very small, nondescript chestnut. Her greatest asset was probably her mind.”

Breaking sharply but getting jostled around, Lady Shipman dropped back to fourth, but she advanced in the turn, angled out from the rail and narrowly missed, losing by a short neck to Mongolian Saturday.

“After the race, these [media] people were shoving microphones in my face and asking how disappointed I must be,” O’Connell recalls. “Hell, I wasn’t disappointed; I was proud. That little 3-year-old filly had just run second against older males. I was so proud of her.”

Prior to the Breeders’ Cup, Lady Shipman had won six stakes, including the Smart N Fancy at Saratoga. After the Breeders’ Cup, strangely enough, O’Connell received an email informing her that Lady Shipman was moving to the barn of trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Tough game.

Training horses, O’Connell says, is like raising children. They’re all unique, and there’s no infallible roadmap revealing a highway to distinction. But O’Connell knows the way. She has been the reliable guide-parent for many stakes winners, such as Well Defined, who won the Sam F. Davis (G3), Stormy Embrace, who won the Princess Rooney (G2), and Watch Me Go, who took O’Connell and the Campbells to the Kentucky Derby after winning the Tampa Bay Derby (G2).

Antonucci and O’Connell share many values. They share a work ethic and a hands-on holistic approach — that is, they appreciate all the parts and pieces that contribute to success, and they heap praise on those that work with them. Antonucci and O’Connell also share many concerns for the future of a sport that they acknowledge is shrinking. Regulatory confusion, costs, purses, work force, stewarding, education, disconnection — they’re all concerns.

“If we don’t compel people to know why horse racing matters and let them understand it on a different level,” Antonucci says, “[the sport] will continue to shrink…. Our biggest challenge in this industry is that we have too many executives who literally could not clean a stall, and this is a very difficult business to run and to grow if you don’t understand the horse.”

Dedicated and passionate, O’Connell and Antonucci have overcome every obstacle in their paths to become hugely successful and, even more, to become legends in Florida racing. But they can offer even more than support, they can offer guidance.