As the field for the 155th running of the Belmont Stakes edged into the starting gate on Saturday, anyone who has been enthralled with this sport and everyone who loves thoroughbreds was hoping — no, pleading — for something good to happen.
Just a little bit. For the past five weeks, horse racing’s annual turn in the consciousness of American sports fans had hopscotched to one miserable outcome after another, prompting open debate about whether the sport should have its social license renewed.
The Belmont Stakes, by comparison, was mostly a fairy tale.
A gray named Arcangelo thundered down the stretch of the track on Long Island to make history: His trainer, Jena Antonucci, became the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown race, a series that spans more than a century.
From the clubhouse, Antonucci watched her rider, Javier Castellano, dive into the rail around the far turn and slingshot into the stretch as if Arcangelo were tethered to a magnetic electric train track. The horse held off a late run by Forte and gave Castellano his first Belmont victory in 14 tries. Castellano, a Hall of Famer, won his first Kentucky Derby five weeks ago aboard Mage on his 16th attempt.
“He wanted to run today and I had to be patient with him,” Castellano said after the race before directing the attention back to Antonucci and her team.
In the clubhouse with wet cheeks and happy feet, Antonucci jumped and exhorted her horse down the stretch. Antonucci, a Florida-born former show rider, had paid her dues in the barn of another Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas.
Her barn is small, with just a couple dozen horses. Her staff is mostly women and this was her first victory in a Grade I race, the highest tier of the sport. Since 1937, 30 women had tried 47 times to win a Triple Crown race, only to come up short.
Antonucci was asked what it meant to her to crash through a glass ceiling. “I don’t have a polished answer,” she said, her voice cracking. “They say no crying in baseball, I think’s it’s the same in horse racing.”
After a couple of deep breaths, she tried.
“Horses don’t know who you are,” she said. “To have a horse believe in you and your team like this one does, I wish more people can be like horses.”
Arcangelo is a 3-year-old ridgeling who cost owner Jon Ebbert of Blue Rose Farm a bargain basement $35,000 as a yearling. In the last couple of months, as the gray developed into a classy runner, Ebbert fielded phone calls from owners and trainers who were offering a lot more money than the horse’s purchase price to land Arcangelo in their barns.
Arcangelo began his racing career in December as a 2-year-old and Antonucci took her time with him between races. He had only raced four times before Saturday, winning twice, most impressively last month on this racetrack.
“I have an immense amount of gratitude to Jon,” Antonucci said. “He’s a patient owner. A lot of owners could learn from his example and let a horse develop. This crazy guy gave a bunch of girls a chance.”
The record books will say Arcangelo won the mile-and-a-half race known because of its length as the Test of the Champion in 2:29.35. He paid $17.80 for a $2 win bet and earned a $900,000 first place check for Ebbert and Blue Rose Farm.
For a moment, perhaps, a hopeful look into the future eclipsed the tragedy of a spate of dead horses and the stain of failed drug tests by two top trainers.
Twelve dead horses — two on the undercard of the Kentucky Derby — put the venerable sport under red hot scrutiny.
Things got worse in Baltimore, where Bob Baffert, the most accomplished and controversial horse trainer in the United States, returned from a suspension straight to the spotlight with his horse National Treasure winning the Preakness Stakes.
Baffert had been banned for two years from the Triple Crown because of a failed drug test by Medina Spirit in the Derby. And in the hours before the Preakness Stakes, Havnameltdown, another colt he trained, stumbled around the far turn of Pimlico Race Course, injured a leg and had to be euthanized on the track.
Last month, the second place finisher Forte was disqualified as the winner of the Hopeful Stakes in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., after a prohibited substance was found in his post-race drug tests. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, another Hall of Famer, has had horses fail six drug tests in three states, The New York Times reported.
And 25 minutes after Antonucci’s victory, a horse named Excursionniste sustained a fatal injury in the last race of the day at Belmont Park. It was the third fatality at the track since the meet’s opening on May 4.
Still, Antonucci’s victory was something to celebrate. The trainer was both grateful and determined. As she walked out of the paddock before the race, she had a moment to remind herself what was ahead.
“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.’”
She did. And, man, did horse racing need it.
Joe Drape has been writing about the intersection of sports, culture and money since coming to The Times in 1998. He has also pursued these lines of reporting as the author of two best-selling books. @joedrape