From dawn rides to Belmont Stakes triumph, horse trainer Jena Antonucci shares historic journey with Harpeth Hall students
As the striking gray colt named Arcangelo sprinted down the sandy stretch in the third jewel of the 2023 Triple Crown, Jena Antonucci had a realization. She was about to become the first female trainer in 155 years of Belmont Stakes history to win the race.
With all the determination of a history-making racing steed in his dark eyes, her horse had tucked in along the rail behind early leaders and stealthily crept up on the Preakness winner, who set the pace a few lengths ahead. Then, Arcangelo and his jockey made their move, and the horse left his competition in the dust.
After her horse won, Ms. Antonucci searched for the right words, overcome with emotion. Then, she said something in the post-race interview that has been quoted again and again: "Never give up. And if you can't find a seat at the table, make your own table."
On Thursday, Ms. Antonucci came to Nashville and shared that message with Harpeth Hall students.
“I was the first woman in 155 years to win a horse race. It sounds so insignificant, and yet it says everything about the journey we are on,” she said. “I have been asked a lot, ‘What was it like to be the first woman to do this or that?’ I didn’t think about that part. It was never a perspective that I lived with. Why? Because growing up, I was able to be around amazing women who taught me how to ride, who taught me how to take care of horses, who taught me what responsibility meant. ...I didn’t know what it meant to be a female in the racing world because they weren’t separate for me. I am just a female, so what does my gender have to do with what I am really good at? Anything that was important to me in my life had nothing to do with being female; it had everything to do with the foundation of what I was taught: work hard, make it happen for yourself.”
Ms. Antonucci grew up in South Florida and participated in her first horse show before she was 4 years old. She spent years getting up before dawn with “crazy horse girls.” They scaled jumps around the barn and got dirty. Her parents bought her a “green” horse, one with no formal training, for her 9th birthday. Her career in the hunter-jumper ring began not long after.
In high school, she began retraining retired racehorses and showing them. She worked briefly as a veterinary technician and
transitioned into the Thoroughbred racing industry in 2000. She got her first winner at Tampa Bay Downs on March 7, 2010.
“I am sure every one of you has heard, ‘If you find something that you are passionate about, you never work a day in your life,’” Ms. Antonucci said. “That is kind of true. You work every day of your life because you are passionate about it, and it means more to you than anything else. Whatever your favorite thing is, when you are passionate about it, nothing else matters. …Make sure you listen to yourself to find your way.”
Ms. Antonucci has done just that, channeling her passion as a trainer and a caregiver for the horses. In 2022, she co-founded horseOlogy and its companion nonprofit, horseOlogy Encore. The organization aims to provide individualized care and training for Thoroughbred horses, while Encore helps Thoroughbred horses through retirement and rehoming.
“Our mission is to make sure that every horse that we get to put our hands on has the appropriate retirement from racing. That is probably some of the most meaningful work we get to do with horses, making sure that we are stewarding them the best way that we can.”
Ms. Anonucci encouraged students to seek out their passions and to follow their dreams, whatever they may be. She also reminded them that no matter what track they choose to speed around, they should always stay true to who they are.
“The Thoroughbred and equine world is a niche, and it is unique, but it is not very different than, say, the banking world. The higher you get, the harder it gets,” she told Harpeth Hall students. “I have no doubt that all of these amazing ladies sitting out here, however hard you work, you will accomplish what you can. But don’t lose yourself on the journey. Stay committed to yourself, stay committed to your mission, stay committed to your process, and don’t lose yourself.”