Arcangelo Holds Off the Pack to Win the Belmont Stakes
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.
Twelve dead horses — two on the undercard of the Kentucky Derby — had put the venerable sport under red hot scrutiny that prompted open debate about whether it should have its social license renewed.
Things got worse in Baltimore.
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, the sport’s biggest stage, 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.
The Belmont Stakes, by comparison, was a fairy tale.
A gray colt named Arcangelo thundered down the stretch of the track on Long Island to make a little 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 colt 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 colt 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 have tried 47 times, 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 basemen $35,000 as a yearling. In the last couple months, as the gray colt developed into a classy runner, Ebbert fielded phone calls from owners and trainers who were offering a lot more than the colt’s purchase prize to land Arcangelo in their barns.
Beyond the deaths at the Derby, the sport had been rocked by the news that Forte, the Derby favorite until he was declared unsound by Kentucky veterinarians and scratched on the morning of the race, had flunked a drug test last September after winning the Hopeful Stakes. It was one of six failed tests by horses trained by Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher in the last 11 months.
Forte, the favorite at the Belmont Stakes, finished second on Saturday.
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