Late Wednesday afternoon, trainer Jena Antonucci was unfazed by both Belmont Stakes hoopla and the significant local effects of the Canadian wildfires.
“It’s not affecting us,” she said of the otherworldly haze hanging over the New York metropolitan area. “We’re doing fine.”
She also sounded remarkably relaxed for someone who’s running her first horse in a Triple Crown race and trying to make history amid a climate crisis.
“My job is to create the best opportunity for this horse and to create space for him to do his best,” she said. “As much as I’m on the journey, this is his journey and I’m grateful to be along for the ride.
“There’s a lot going on in our industry, and I’m glad to be able to offer a new perspective. This is an amazing opportunity for people to learn about what we do.”
On Saturday evening at Belmont Park, Antonucci will saddle Arcangelo, her second graded stakes winner in a 13-year training career. Her barn is based in Florida, but after the ridgling broke his maiden at Gulfstream Park in March, she shipped him north for the Grade III Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 13. His head win convinced her and owner Jon Ebbert that he deserved a shot at the third leg of the Triple Crown.
Arcangelo is a son of Arrogate, winner of the 2016 Travers Stakes, and a grandson of Tapit. Those bloodlines show up in his gray/roan coat and in his affinity for distance. Offspring of Tapit have been especially successful in the Belmont, and four of his sons have lasted the 12 furlongs to make it to the Belmont Stakes winner’s circle. (Should Tapit Shoes or Tapit Trice win on Saturday, Tapit will set a stallion record for Belmont winners.)
Yet despite that regal pedigree, Arcangelo cost a mere $35,000 at the 2021 Keeneland September yearling sale. Ebbert went to that sale with no intention to buy more than one horse, and certainly with no intention of giving a horse to Antonucci.
“I was at the sale with my business partner, Katie Miranda,” Antonucci said. “We were shopping for clients and looking for pinhook prospects. I was standing in the back ring, and she whistled to me to try to get my attention.
“Jon happened to be standing there, and we started joking with each other, and that’s how the relationship started. He had intended to buy only one horse, but then he fell in love with this one.”
Ebbert told Antonucci that he bought the horse with a 2024 campaign in mind — yes, a campaign that focused on the horse as a 4-year-old. Still, the trainer brought him to Saratoga last year as a 2-year-old—not to race, but to learn.
“We allowed him to grow,” she said. “Saratoga was a great opportunity to let him see and hear so much activity. We spaced out his works as long as we possibly could, breezing him when he got ‘too naughty.’”
Despite his angelic name, that naughtiness is what first struck Antonucci when the horse got to her barn. A May foal, he was full of energy, and Antonucci wanted to give him the space to act out a little before starting to learn how to be a racehorse, lessons to which he took with alacrity.
Characterizing him as “a good learner,” Antonucci said, “He’s super clever and very intuitive. He doesn’t miss a thing.”
While Ebbert told her to take all the time she needed with Arcangelo, Antonucci could also see that her trainee was both talented and eager. Impressed with his stride, she saw the best parts of both his top and bottom pedigrees in him.
“Arrogate was heavier and hit the ground harder,” she said. “He’s got natural speed and a lighter build, so a little bit of that Tapit refinement came through. Because we had no early plans for him, we did a lot of foundation-building and maintenance half-miles, getting the mileage underneath him. We never really got to the bottom of him.”
He raced once at the very end of his 2-year-old year, running a distant second in his first over a sloppy track at Gulfstream. In January, he ran fourth at the south Florida oval over a fast surface, then broke his maiden in March, winning by 3 1/2 lengths.
Then came the Peter Pan, in which he brought his trainer her second lifetime win in a graded stakes races. If he wins the Belmont, he’ll add her first Grade I win to her record.
Beyond individual accomplishments, Antonucci will make racing history if Arcangelo hits the wire first on Saturday, as no woman trainer has ever won the Belmont Stakes. His stalking style suits a race of this distance, and depending how the pace develops up front, he may well be in a perfect spot to overtake early frontrunners. He’ll be ridden by Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, who knows Belmont’s unusual configuration as well as any rider. Last month, Castellano won his first Kentucky Derby; this would be his first win in the Belmont Stakes.
Castellano and Arcangelo will break from post three and are 8-1 on the morning line.
In addition to training 20 horses, Antonucci manages HorseOlogy, the company she and Miranda that is based out of their farm in Ocala, Fl. Billed as a full-service, full-cycle operation, the two women manage Thoroughbreds from breaking and training, to buying and racing, and to retiring.
“I don’t have a burning desire to train 200 racehorses,” she said. “I love working at our farm and bringing along young horses, and I enjoy building a relationship with each horse.”
Thanks to Arcangelo, that philosophy and her training methods are reaching a larger audience. And while we can’t reasonably expect a heavenly chorus if he wins on Saturday, his victory will certainly trumpet Antonucci’s successes far and wide.