Breeders' Cup Presents Connections: With Promising 3-Year-Old, Antonucci Focused On 'What Really Matters' - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: With Promising 3-Year-Old, Antonucci Focused On ‘What Really Matters’

Trainer Jen Antonucci and Arcangelo (photo provided)

To the outside world, it may appear as though the winner's circle is the ultimate goal for horse racing participants.

For trainer Jena Antonucci, however, a trip to the winner's circle is just a byproduct of her actual goals. Just a few days after sending out perhaps the biggest winner of her career, 3-year-old Arcangelo in last Saturday's G3 Peter Pan at Belmont Park, Antonucci took the time to set the record straight.

“Goals and success are defined very interestingly, not only in racing but also in life,” Antonucci said. “Without getting overly philosophical, you've gotta be really careful to make sure you're setting goals that represent who you are.

“My goal has always been to do the best we can with the horses that we have, and really, just building good relationships with good people. Then, at the end of the day, whatever that yields is what it yields.

“It's easy to get caught up in the chase for success and lose sight of what really matters. For me, it's about doing what I love, and doing it in a way that I can be proud of. If the winner's circle comes, that's just a bonus.”

Ridden by Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Javier Castellano, Arcangelo won the Peter Pan by a hard-fought head over favorite Bishop's Bay. The Peter Pan has often been used as a prep for the Belmont Stakes, and as a son of the late Arrogate out of a Tapit mare, there's little question Arcangelo should appreciate the Belmont distance. In fact, Arcangelo's third dam, Better Than Honour, produced back-to-back Belmont Stakes winners Jazil and Rags to Riches.

Yet, neither Antonucci nor owner Jon Ebbert are at all ready to commit the colt to the third leg of the Triple Crown. It's a testament to both parties' patience that they're willing to let the horse tell them when he's ready, rather than the other way around.

The owner-trainer partnership between Ebbert and Antonucci, well-established as it is, began less than two years ago at the 2021 Keeneland September sale.

Antonucci recalls that her business partner, Katie Miranda, was trying to get her attention from a short distance away. Miranda whistled, but Ebbert stepped in to respond.

“It was an exchange of sarcasm, to be honest, and we all just knew, 'These are my people,'” Antonucci remembered. “We started talking, and it just developed from there.”

Ebbert had gone to the sale to purchase one yearling; instead, he left with two. Arcangelo was hammered down for a final bid of $35,000, a bargain price considering the fact the colt has now won two of four starts for earnings of $167,400.

“Jon just fell in love with this horse,” Antonucci said. “Clearly Arrogate wasn't hot then, and since he was a May foal, he was kind of a sum of parts. He wasn't flashy or pretty, and there was a lot to still come together. There was nothing offensive, he just needed the time.”

Ebbert liked the colt so much that he gave him a name of great personal importance. Arcangelo means “archangel” in Italian; the colt is named for a former employee of Ebbert's at his farm in Pennsylvania.

“He had this little Italian guy who worked for him,” explained Antonucci. “He was just crazy about the horses, and he had this way with all of them. He's passed on now, so he named this colt after this amazing human being.”

After connecting at the Keeneland sale, Ebbert opted to send Arcangelo to Antonucci's Ocala-based breaking and pre-training operation, which she manages in concert with Miranda. 

Both Antonucci and Miranda have their background in the hunter/jumper realm, so their styles of training are well-matched. 

“I started riding at three years old, having seen horses driving down the road and annoying my mother enough that she finally stopped and signed me up for lessons,” Antonucci said. “My parents thought it would be a good idea to buy me a green horse for my ninth birthday; well, she taught me a lot!”

Antonucci spent a few years pursuing other career paths, but she always came back to the horses. Eventually, she decided to pursue it full time. 

“I grew up doing a ton of retraining of off-track Thoroughbreds, because that's just where you got your horses back then,” she explained. “Eventually, I found that I really wanted to understand the 'why.' As in, I wanted to understand what I was having to fix in these off-track horses, where it was coming from.

“It didn't make sense to me. In the hunter/jumper world, you learn all of the foundation of balance, what it means to create it from the hind end, and what it means to be an athlete. Then you see these horses that are supposed to be athletes, but they're dragging themselves around on the front end and not at all balanced.”

Hired to help start horses for the D. Wayne Lukas program at Padua Stables, Antonucci gained a whole new perspective on the retraining process for ex-racehorses. She then spent four and a half years as an equine veterinary assistant, learning more about horses and their health, before opening her own business at Bella Inizio Farm and expanding into both pre-training and full-time race training.

“One of the most important things to me is that every horse is an individual,” she said. “Yes, we have a base program, but everything is tweakable. Every horse has its own personality, has its own path, and has different things you're tending to. I'm never going to be a 200-horse person. Whatever opportunities I got, I just wanted to try and do the best job I could with those horses. I can't fix them all, and I can't save them all, but if I do my best with what I have, that will reward me down the road. I've tried to stay true to that idea: 'What can I do best for these horses while they're in our hands?'”

Delving deeper into the horsemanship Antonucci has developed throughout her career, she explains that from the very beginning she wants to develop the horse's ability to trust.

“We do a lot of field work, they have the rest of their lives to go between the rails,” said Antonucci. “We ground drive them, make sure they can stop, go, turn right, left, etc. I think you partner up with a horse better, and they build stronger sense of trust in humans in their lives, when you slow down and explain it to them. They'll give you everything they have if they feel safe with you.”

That education of the horse extends to the jockey, as well. 

“We can only do so much in the mornings,” Antonucci said. “I like to develop a relationship with riders, because they understand how horses run for them when they understand how we train.”

For Arcangelo, having an experienced Hall of Famer like Castellano aboard likely made all the difference in the Peter Pan. 

He's the right kind of rider for Arcangelo,” she continued. “He needs someone that's willing to mentor him a little and make the right asks at the right times: 'I need you to go here, go there.' In the stretch, Javi was super confident that he had enough horse to run back by Bishop's Bay. That's so important, teaching him to look a horse in the eye and then go by him again.”

In the meantime, Antonucci looks forward to whatever the future brings with Arcangelo, whether that's a try in the Belmont Stakes or in one of the other Grade 1's later this summer.

“The horse is just built different. I know that sounds so cliché, but it's my job – our job – to stay out of his way,” Antonucci said. “Mr. Ebbert has done a great job to give the horse time and let him mature. He's a May foal. It's all been about education and him maturing and figuring out who he is. He's still a kid figuring it out. We'll stay out of his way and see how he comes out of this, then make a decision from there.” 

Paulick Report Icon

Receive daily headlines, breaking news alerts, promotions, and much more!

Become An Insider

Support our journalism and access bonus content on our Patreon stream

Learn More