Belmont Day Was One For the Record Books

Before we get to this year’s Belmont Stakes and the inspiring story of Jena Antonucci we first have to acknowledge the greatest side show in New York racing history, and that is the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s Belmont and Triple Crown. This is geared more toward its longevity than the three races themselves, as we have already had numerous recollections of the 1973 Test of the Champion, a title that was never more fitting than that year. ~ Steve Haskin

Belmont Day Was One For the Record Books

By Steve Haskin

Photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese/NYRA


The smoke cleared, the sun came out, and racing once again shined. The conditions were perfect for the stars to light up the sky and did they ever, beginning with the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s historic Triple Crown sweep. With Big Red’s presence everywhere, from Jocelyn Russell’s magnificent statue on display to Penny Chenery’s daughter Kate Tweedy calling “Riders Up,” what better time to showcase racing’s heroes old and new and show the world how special this sport can be and how deeply it can touch people.

And what an appropriate day for history to be made, as small-time trainer Jena Antonucci became the first female to saddle the winner of a Triple Crown race, defeating the likes of superstar trainers Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, and Brad Cox with her late-developing colt Arcangelo, a handsome son of the late Arrogate, who owner Jon Ebbert plucked out of the Keeneland September yearling sale for a paltry $35,000 because the colt was immature and was dealing with sesamoid issues.

Whether you believe in the spiritual world literally, figuratively, or just poetically, how could you better explain the momentous achievement by Antonucci this year of all years with the presence of Penny Chenery hovering over a packed Belmont crowd engulfed in the memory a very special lady and her history-changing horse? As Kate Tweedy said, “Mom was present in so many ways.”

Antonucci actually has Penny beat in one aspect of their lives. She began riding horses at the age of 3, while Penny waited until the ripe old age of 5.

And hours before, we saw the heartwarming saga of Cody Dorman continue with another sensational and emotional victory by last year’s Vox Populi Award winner Cody’s Wish in the Metropolitan Handicap. Lady’s Day actually started earlier when the speedy filly Caravel beat the boys in the Jaipur Stakes. And even though he was defeated we have to salute the hard-luck Forte for bouncing back after an injury and an unprecedented 10-week layoff and turning in one of the most impressive losing efforts seen in a long time.

But before we go into detail on Jena Antonucci, Arcangelo, and this special weekend of racing we have to give our final thoughts on Secretariat and how he helped turn Belmont Park into hallowed ground with a performance that still leaves racing fans of all ages awestruck whether they first saw it 50 years or 50 minutes ago.

The Spirit of Secretariat as Strong as Ever

“Every record has been destroyed, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted…History has stopped.”

Although George Orwell’s words were meant as a foreboding message, we can’t help but use them to describe the aftermath of the 1973 Triple Crown and its effect on the history of Thoroughbred racing.

But this column is not about the 1973 Belmont Stakes or the Triple Crown as a whole. It is about the legacy the three races have left, to the point where they have become a piece of Americana, a Norman Rockwell painting that depicts a part of our culture. But Rockwell would not have painted Secretariat in all his magnificence. He would not have shown him thundering down the Belmont Park stretch seemingly miles ahead of his beleaguered foes. Instead he would show an elderly man in the stands hugging his grandchild, grateful for the enduring moment the two have been able to share. He would show a mass of jubilant faces looking up in admiration and gratitude at a former Denver, Colorado housewife flailing her arms about in rapturous celebration, fully aware of the masterpiece her father had created and entrusted to her.

Whether one realized it at the time or not, when Secretariat crossed the finish line in the Belmont Stakes a staggering 31 lengths in front and stopped the teletimer in a record-shattering 2:24, history for all intents and purposes stopped.

Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont had, as Orwell would say, destroyed every record, had rewritten every history book; had repainted every picture in our mind of what the perfect racehorse and true greatness were. Yes, history had stopped in the sense that the American Thoroughbred, at all levels of greatness, would spend the next half-century futilely chasing the records Secretariat had obliterated in the spring of 1973. In short, history has not been rewritten since.

In fact, the chasm between Secretariat’s records and their closest pursuers is so vast it is highly doubtful they will ever be threatened. As a result, all records and accomplishments of the past 50 years must be measured against each other and no longer against Secretariat. For example, the four Triple Crown winners since 1973, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, American Pharoah and Justify, would have been beaten 20 lenghts, 14 lengths, 13 lengths and 20 lengths, respectively, by Secretariat. Even the second two fastest Belmont winners in the history of the race, Hall of Famers Easy Goer and A.P. Indy, would have been beaten 10 lengths by Big Red. And no horse has threatened their time in the past 31 years.

Not only does Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby record of 1:59 2/5 still stand, only one winner in the last 50 years has even broken the 2:00 mark and that was 22 years ago. Big Red’s Preakness time of 1:53 is all the more amazing considering that his explosive and seemingly suicidal last-to-first move on the first turn would have wiped out any other horse.

So having read and watched all the 50th anniversary tributes to Secretariat and his iconic history-changing Triple Crown sweep just remember how far Big Red separated himself from all other horses in the history books and how he transcended the sport the way Man o’War, the first Big Red and larger than life figure, did in 1919 and 1920.

If I could go back in time in the world of horse racing it would be to June 9, 1973 watching Secretariat “move like a tremendous machine.” I knew I was watching something special at the time, but I didn’t know just how special it would be for all time.

Here we are 50 years later and Secretariat is still moving like a tremendous machine, speeding through time from one generation to another. And he won’t be slowing down when our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren celebrate his 100th anniversary and that special time when “history stopped” a long, long time ago.

The Archangels of Belmont

History does have a way of making a reappearance on occasion when it comes to the human side of the sport. And with Cody’s Wish supplying another heartwarming opening act, here came the little known Jena Antonucci and her bargain basement ridgling to add a long-awaited chapter to the history books. With the Sport of Kings going through some rough times, it needed a queen to supply some much-needed perception of an industry that sustains so many lives and is devoted to the welfare and happiness of an animal put on this earth to do one thing – run like the wind and display the heart and courage of the mightiest warrior.

So, with racing seeking a new star, Antonucci and Arcangelo, who were virtual unknowns a month ago, came seemingly out of nowhere to provide a breath of fresh air to a sport many felt was suffocating. Antonucci, in addition to being a superb trainer, represents all that is good in racing in her love of horses, which began competing and training show horses from childhood to early adulthood and then working at Wayne Lukas’ Padua Stables breaking and training Thoroughbreds before broadening her horizons learning about and dedicating herself to the health care of horses working as an equine veterinarian’s assistant for 4 1/2 years. She then opened Bella Inzio Farm in Ocala, Florida, where she cared for broodmares, foals, weanlings and yearlings, which led to rehabilitating Thoroughbreds to return to racing.

One of Antonucci’s goals is to become a force in improving the roles of women in racing, as they occupy more and more top positions. She wants to help move training in that direction, where every woman with the skills, talent, and love of horses can excel and achieve success. Little did she know before Saturday how high she would set the bar.

Antonucci took out her trainer’s license in 2010 and almost immediately made her first trip to the winner’s circle at Tampa Bay Downs. She feels her main strength has been her ability to connect with horses. Always under a microscope in a predominantly male-driven industry, she was able to build on her success over the past decade, which finally allowed her to “take the big jump into the deep waters of New York Racing.”

However, her love of horses was not confined to training. Her involvement in the care and welfare of the horse was felt in 2016 when she was named vice-president of the Florida Thoroughbred Retirement and Adoptive Care. In a 2020 article written in the Thoroughbred Daily News by Diana Pikulski, a pioneer in Thoroughbred aftercare, when Antonucci took over as vice president of the FLTRAC there were 297 horses spread out over several locations in Indiantown, Florida. One of the first changes she made was to consolidate all the horses to one leased location in Indiantown that consisted of three barns, hundreds of acres of turn-out pasture, paddocks of all sizes, and two outdoor riding arenas. The success, like her training career, was immediate, with well over 200 horses being adopted soon after by private individuals.

Life is about timing, and Antonucci just happened to meet Jon Ebbert at the Keeneland sale the day before he bought Arcangelo, who he simply fell in love with in spite of his immaturity and sesamoid issues. It turned out to be a life-changing meeting. Ebbert was extremely impressed with Antonucci, finding her personable, trustworthy, and very detail oriented. Ebbert asked her if she would like to train the horse and so their historic journey began.

Antonucci’s main focus has always been to use her diverse horsemanship skills in developing young horses. But she always makes it a point to pay tribute to her staff, which is mostly female, and their dedication to the horses. Some of her favorite words when it comes to training Thoroughbreds are: “The answer is already within each horse…it’s up to us to listen.” And whatever Arcangelo has been saying to her, she sure has been listening. With the ridgling being a May foal it was her job to let him grow and mature and “not stand in his way.”

Following two defeats at Gulfstream to begin his career, showing promise each time, Arcangelo broke his maiden impressively on March 18, winning by 3 1/2 lengths in a sharp 1:34 4/5 for the mile. That earned him his ticket to New York and those deep waters.

In the Peter Pan Stakes, Arcangelo, under Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Javier Castellano, hooked the favorite Bishop’s Bay turning for home. He gained a slight advantage in midstretch, but Bishop’s Bay battled back to grab the lead and looked to be a sure winner. However, Arcangelo still had more fight left in him and he gave a final surge right before the wire to win by a head, giving Antonucci her first graded stakes winner.

The question now was whether Arcangelo was ready to take on most of the leading 3-year-olds in the country in the mile and a half Belmont Stakes. Antonucci and Ebbert were so confident they agreed to put up a $50,000 supplementary fee, feeling Arcangelo had already paid for it. Their confidence was really tested when a number of substantial offers came in to purchase the horse. Because of their undying faith in him, every offer, no matter how large, was met with a resounding no.

Antonucci, despite all the work she and he staff had put in on the horse, admitted the grit and determination he showed in the Peter Pan is something that can’t be taught. That gave her even more confidence for the Belmont even though he would be stretching out from nine to 12 furlongs in only his fifth lifetime start and facing a strong, battle-tested field of graded stakes horses.

Her response? “Let’s do it,” she told Fox News. “I happen to be a woman who does this and that’s definitely part of the story. But he is the story.”

Belmont day arrived with glorious weather, While major stars Cody’s Wish, Clairiere, Elite Power, and Caravel were scoring popular victories, Arcangelo was sprawled out in his stall snoring away. Sent off at 7-1 , Arcangelo had a dream trip saving ground every step of the way though moderate factions of :47 3/5 and 1:12 2/5. He cut the corner turning for home and spurted clear of the pacesetting Preakness winner National Treasure at the eighth pole, while the Todd Pletcher pair of Forte and Tapit Trice had to fan very wide. They, along with Angel of Empire and Hit Show, all gave chase, but it was too late to catch Arcangelo, who hit the wire 1 1/2 lengths in front of a fast-closing Forte, who nosed out his stablemate for second.

Antonucci was overcome with emotion, kneeling down and burying her head in her hands. After all the years devoting her life to horses and their care, health, and overall welfare, she had been rewarded with her own chapter in the record books  as the only female to win a Triple Crown race. But it still was not about her, but a generous and courageous gray son of Arrogate who died too soon, but appropriately was elected to the Hall of Fame this year.

“I will forever be indebted to his honesty to us and his heart,” Antonucci said of Arcangelo. “He is why you get up seven days a week.”

So in the end, Antonucci listened intently to everything Arcangelo told her, and now here she is, along with her horse, entrenched in the annals of racing. Penny Chenery, a strong woman who admired strength in others, would have been proud to share Secretariat’s day with her. And why not? After all, this was a day meant for history.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


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