NEW YORK (AP) — Jena Antonucci turned a Triple Crown marred by thoroughbred deaths on the track and threatened by bad air quality from wildfires in Canada into a celebration for racing and women.
Arcangelo took the lead at the top of the stretch and won the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, making the 47-year-old Antonucci the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown race.
After the horse crossed the finish line, Antonucci doubled over and rested her arm and head on the back of a chair. She kissed the horse on the nose when it returned to the area in front of the winner’s circle.
“When we were walking out, I said there is not a table made for you,” she said. “You make the table. You put great people around you, you work hard. Work your tail off. It will come if you do it the right way. Do it the right way.”
Antonucci and Arcangelo did everything right as the 3-year-old son of Arrogate finished the 1 1/2-mile race in 2:29.23 and by 1 1/2 lengths in front of favored Forte, with Tapit Trice third.
“They say there’s no crying in baseball. But they’ve never said it about horse racing,” Antonucci said. “You fight for that spot and you feel you have to prove your worth. Horses don’t care. They don’t care who you are. They know who you are. To have a horse believe in you, and your team, the way this horse does … I wish more people could be like horses.”
Jockey Javier Castellano, who rode Mage to victory in the Kentucky Derby and picked up the ride on Arcangelo when the colt was not entered in the Belmont, said Arcangelo was great.
“This is a wonderful horse. I’m really happy for her, you know, she’s a really good woman,” Castellano said of Antonucci. “She’s a good horseman.”
The heart-warming victory put a positive note on a Triple Crown series marred by deaths of 12 horses at Churchill Downs in the weeks around the Kentucky Derby and another on Preakness day for a trainer Bob Baffert. It also ended a week in which the Belmont Stakes was put in jeopardy by air quality problems caused by wildfires in Canada.
Those cleared on Friday and the cloud over thoroughbred racing lifted on Saturday, briefly.
In the final race on the card, Excursionniste sustained a catastrophic injury to his left front leg. Despite efforts by veterinarians, the horse was euthanized. It was the third horse to incur a fatal injury at the current meet. There have been 213 races involving 1,662 horses.
Antonucci, who started riding show horses as a preschooler and later held a plethora of jobs in racing, became a trainer in 2010, running a modest stable. She had sent less than 2,000 horses to the post in her first 13 years.
All the work paid off in one race.
Antonucci was only the 11th woman to race a horse in the Belmont and the first since Kathy Ritvo sent out Mucho Macho Man to a seventh-place finish in 2011. Dianne Carpenter’s Kingpost had the previous best finish, second to Risen Star in 1988.
Arcangelo came into the Belmont off a hard-fought victory in the Peter Pan Stakes.
Arcangelo, who broke from the No. 3 post position, was always close to the lead in the nine-horse field. Preakness winner National Treasure led a group of seven within striking distance after a half, but as the race progressed Arcangelo stayed on the rail and was running head to head with National Treasure on the far turn that leads to the stretch.
By the time they reached the stretch, Arcangelo moved to the front, opened some daylight and never let any horse get closer than the final margin.
“He’s got the heart of a champion,” Antonucci said.
Arcangelo paid $17.80, $7.20 and $4.,90 and earned $900,000 for Blue Rose Farm, which is owned by Jon Ebbert.
“It’s amazing,” Ebbert said. “What an amazing ride. I’m so proud of the horse. He’s an amazing horse. He’s all heart. We knew he had it in him. Javier rode him perfectly and Jena is an amazing trainer. I’m so lucky to find her. The rest is history.”
Forte returned $4.30 and $3.30 and Tapit Trice was $4.10 to show. Both were trained by Todd Pletcher.
“I’m super proud of both horses,” Pletcher said. “I knew we were asking a lot coming off the 10-week layoff (with Forte). He got shuffled back a little bit and once he got him outside in the clear, he was still making impact at the end, but he just ran out of time getting there.”
Baffert said National Treasure never relaxed for jockey John Velazquez.
“He gave us a little bit of a thrill turning for home, but he was just wasn’t … .” Baffert said.
Hit Show finished fourth and was followed by Angel of Empire, National Treasure, Il Miracolo, Red Route One and Tapit Shoes.
The 13-race card on Saturday was filled with at least a half-dozen outstanding races, headlined by the $1 million Metropolitan Handicap on the dirt and the $750,000 Manhattan Handicap on the turf.
Cody’s Wish ($3.30) posted his sixth straight win for trainer Bill Mott in capturing the Met Mile in 1:34.36, while the Pletcher-trained Up to the Mark ($5.30) was an easy winner in the Manhattan.
Mott also saw another streak continue when Elite Power won his seventh straight in taking the $250,000 True North.