Belmont Stakes Review 2023: Ladies’ First as Arcangelo Flies Home for Antonucci

Jena AntonucciThe 2023 Belmont Stakes betting suggested that it was a three-horse race but it was the progressive Arcangelo who triumphed at more generous odds of 7/1 on June 10 at Belmont Park under Javier Castellano for Jena Antonucci. It was an extraordinary victory as Antonucci became the first female handler to saddle a Triple Crown race winner.

It was also a triumph for a relatively small operation taking on the big guns. The leaders in the betting market were predictably saddled by the massive names including Hall of Fame trainers. Who had heard of Antonucci?

Castellano gave Arcangelo a great ride, hugging the rail and giving him every chance to show he had the stamina for the Belmont distance of a mile and a half. Like most of his rivals he was trying it for the first time.

Todd Pletcher’s 9/4 Belmont Stakes favorite Forte responded to Irad Ortiz Jr’s urgings and ran on late in the stretch but could not get to Arcangelo. He was beaten one and a half lengths into second. Fortunately Arcangelo was unaware that he was not supposed to be capable of beating Pletcher’s juvenile champion.

Forte, a son of Violence out of a Blame mare was a great value purchase as a yearling at $110,000 for Repole Stable and St. Elias. He had five grade 1 wins on his resume but was disqualified from the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga after failing a drug test.

He was last seen winning the Florida Derby in impressive style and was the Kentucky Derby favorite before he was withdrawn shortly before the race for veterinary reasons. He had bruised his foot and tensions were high after a number of fatalities at Churchill Downs. In contrast Arcangelo’s biggest win was in his most recent run in the grade 3 Peter Pan at this track. He beat Brad Cox’s Bishop’s Bay by the narrowest of margins. The Belmont was just his fifth start.

Pletcher also saddled the Toyota Blue Grass winner Tapit Trice who was sent off at 5/1. He was a $1,300,000 purchase for Whisper Hill Farm and Gainesway Stable as a yearling and finished third. He was beaten into that placing by the narrowest of margins under Luis Saez.

The Brad Cox-trained Hit Show (9/1) took joint fourth place for Gary and Mary West under Manuel Franco with another of his trainees, the more popular Angel Of Empire (7/2), two and a quarter lengths behind the winner. Angel Of Empire won the Arkansas Derby in April and finished third in the Kentucky Derby. Bob Baffert’s Preakness victor, National Treasure (6/1) was sixth, five lengths behind them.

Antonucci achieved her historic first top level success with a son of Arrogate out of a Tapit dam who was purchased for just $35,000 as a yearling at Keeneland by Jon Ebbert for his Blue Rose Farm operation. She has not had big owner budgets at her disposal to purchase horses and her best results to date had been a couple of grade 3 wins.

Arcangelo shares his sire’s color but not his colossal conformation or charisma. Bred by Don Alberto Corporation, he must have had weaknesses in his movement or conformation to be sold for such a low price. It was a massive hit for his breeders, they paid $2,850,000 for his dam in 2014 who had produced nothing of note so far. The ill-fated Arrogate’s stud fee was $50,000.

Who is Jena Antonucci?

Antonucci grew up with horses and started riding as a three-year-old. She is a handler with experience of other equine disciplines that made her a horsewoman before she became a trainer in 2010. Whilst still a child she trained and competed show horses, producing them to a high standard. On a quest to further her knowledge of equines she moved to Ocala, Florida to learn how to break and retrain thoroughbreds, using methods approved by D Wayne Lucas.

After that she gained valuable experience working as an equine veterinary assistant for four years before starting her own business. Initially Bella Inizio Farm offered care for broodmares and their offspring, rehabilitating racehorses was added to their services at a later date.

Antonucci’s assistant trainer also has equine experience beyond racing. Fiona Goodwin was born in County Kerry, Ireland where her father was a successful show jumper. He was a perfectionist who instilled a forensic attention to detail. Goodwin moved to Arnemann Farms, Kentucky to help with breaking and preparing young horses. Team Antonucci is not a standard training operation.

What happened in the race?

National Treasure broke well from gate four and took the lead early under John Velazquez, hoping the tactics that gave him his first Preakness win could produce the same result. Forte was close behind him as they went into the first turn. Castellano grabbed the rail behind the pacesetters on Arcangelo as the first quarter was run in 23.6 seconds.

Angel Of Empire was forced to take the first turn three wide close to the pace. Tapit Trice was feeling the heat early on and was outpaced finding himself at the rear of the pack. Steve Asmussen’s Red Route One (16/1), who finished fourth in the Preakness, trailed the field under Joel Rosario.

Hit Show was just behind the pace with Tapit Trice and Angel Of Empire as Forte raced in sixth place after the first turn. With three furlongs left to run Arcangelo sneaked up the inside of National Treasure and soon headed him. He galloped ahead of his closest pursuers and maintained his advantage to the wire whilst a fierce battle was fought for the minor placings. There were no hard luck stories.

What next for Arcangelo?

Antonucci stressed that they would do whatever is right for Arcangelo but planned to ship him to Saratoga. If he comes out of the Belmont in good shape he may next be seen in the Jim Dandy or Travers Stakes.