From the time she was preschooler, Jena Antonucci has been around horses and worked more than her share of jobs.
Antonucci started riding show horses as 3-year-old and later trained them before switching to thoroughbreds, learning under Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. The journey continued with 4 1/2 years as an equine veterinary assistant to give her a deeper perspective on horses and their health.
The 47-year-old Antonucci became a thoroughbred trainer 13 years ago and her path will take its biggest step on Saturday when Arcangelo is scheduled to go to the post at Belmont Park in the 155th running of the Belmont Stakes.
If Arcangelo races, Antonucci will become the 11th female trainer to have a horse in the final jewel of the Triple Crown, and the first since Kathy Ritvo sent out Mucho Macho Man to a seventh-place finish in 2011. Sarah Lundy was the first, with Minstrel Star in 1984. No female trainer has won the race; Dianne Carpenter's Kingpost had the best finish, second to Risen Star in 1988.
“Definitely doesn’t fall on deaf ears, the history and grandeur of what it is here, to having the ability to participate in a Triple Crown event,” Antonucci said. “So, exciting for all the connections and just be able to step back for a minute and just appreciate what that means, is neat. It’s, yeah, it’s kind of hard to wrap up in one little sentence. But just trying to really enjoy the opportunity the horse is affording us.”
Arcangelo skipped the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and scored a hard-fought victory in the 1 1/8 mile Peter Pan Stakes, which is the prep race in New York for the Belmont. The 3-year-old son of Arrogate will try to become the first horse since Tonalist (2014) to sweep the Peter Pan-Belmont double.
“I think it told the world more than it told us,” Antonucci said of the Peter Pan win. “Not being coy, but we’ve thought he was pretty special for some time, and just letting him develop into that. The grit and determination, deep stretch is the horse. That can’t be taught.”
Mage, who won the Kentucky Derby and finished third in the Preakness, will not be in the Belmont. The field of nine in the Belmont just might be the most competitive of the three Triple Crown races.
Forte, the Kentucky Derby favorite scratched the day of the race because of a foot injury, returns and is the 5-2 favorite for trainer Todd Pletcher, who also trains the 3-1 second choice, Tapit Trice. Angel of Empire is the 7-2 third choice for trainer Brad Cox and Preakness winner National Treasure (5-1) will try to get Bob Baffert back to the winner's circle for the second straight jewel.
Antonucci believes in getting to know her horses, building trust with them and being realistic with expectations. Most important to her is not getting caught up chasing success.
Arcangelo, who will be ridden by Javier Castellano because Mage is not racing, was a case in point. The 3-year-old was a May foal and needed time to mature, so he got it from owner Jon Ebbert. When he was ready to race, he did.
Antonucci runs a modest stable and Bella Inizio Farm in Florida. She has sent her charges to the post 47 times this year, winning seven races, while finishing second five times and third four times. Her horses have earned $323,440. For her career, she has 1,913 starts with 160 winners, 238 seconds and 231 third-place finishes.
Pletcher, Cox and Baffert run some of the biggest stables in the country. Pletcher has sent out 416 runners this year, Cox 347 and Baffert 137.
“We’re here, we’re available,” Antonucci said of female trainers. “There’s a lot of phenomenal horse women and men out there that are middle- and smaller-sized that would welcome the opportunity to share what they can do. Obviously, we’re in that position now and people just get to see more, first-hand what we get to do and who we are. And I am immensely grateful for that opportunity.”