Updated thoughts on Gronkowski, European Road to Kentucky Derby winner, in Belmont Stakes
In case you’re wondering about my thoughts on Belmont S. (G1) contender Gronkowski, I’d written a scouting report (a compare and contrast with Mendelssohn) for Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, and the points about the challenges of his most searching class test, first dirt race, and distance question all still apply.
One significant difference is that he’s not shipping in from Newmarket for Jeremy Noseda, the switch to Chad Brown giving him plenty of time to settle in and train on the dirt. “Gronk” appears to be thriving physically, well past the illness that ruled him out of the Derby, and taking to the Belmont surface. Brown noted that his June 2 gallop-out was even stronger than in his first solid move for the barn on May 26, workmate Engage (who runs in Saturday’s Woody Stephens [G2]) providing a yardstick in addition to the clock on both occasions. His dirt aptitude can only be known for certain, though, in the crucible of a race.
If Gronkowski is happy on dirt, the rhythm of the Belmont figures to suit him better than the Derby. At Churchill Downs, he would have likely been run off his feet. At least here he should find his comfort zone early. Gronk was more emphatic when allowed to take up a forward position, as in his first two wins, than when held up in his last two scores, suggesting he prefers to stride out and gradually wind up rather than be restrained off the pace. His grinding style gives some hope of staying the trip, more so than his immediate pedigree as a son of Australian star Lonhro and a Lookin at Lucky mare.
The rub is that Gronkowski has quite a bit to prove in his first start beyond a mile, especially on the dramatic class hike and off a 71-day break. The third jewel of the Triple Crown is a world apart from Britain’s winter all-weather scene. He compiled his four-race winning streak in novice events, the Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions Race, and a listed stakes at Newcastle, the March 30 Burradon, clinching the inaugural European Road to the Kentucky Derby invitation.
My analysis of the merit of his Burradon Stakes form still stands: Gronkowski beat a couple of nice rivals that day, but he was race-fit, and they didn’t run up to their best on seasonal reappearance. To update that linked column, Burradon fourth Purser has come back to win his next two at Newmarket, including the May 19 King Charles II, usually a stepping stone to Royal Ascot’s Jersey (G3). Burradon sixth Nyaleti filled that same spot in the April 18 Nell Gwyn (G3), then moved forward to capture the May 5 Conqueror Fillies’ S. at Goodwood and ran away with the May 27 German 1000 Guineas (G2). Would Gronkowski still beat them in a rematch? And if so, how much more does he need to improve to hold his own against our top three-year-olds on dirt?
Brown has sounded positive in his quotes about Gronk, yet tellingly commented that he would have preferred to have another breeze. Welcoming a British shipper who’d just gotten over treatment for a slight infection prompted him to tread cautiously.
“There’s some unknowns – he did miss some time – and coming off a layoff going a mile-and-a-half, that’s about as tough of a task as you can ask a horse to do,” Brown said. “But he’s a high-quality horse, so maybe he’s good enough to do it.”
Gronkowski, as powerfully built as his name implies, is a likeable individual who cost 300,000 guineas at the Tattersalls Craven “breeze-up” (aka two-year-old in training) sale. But the Phoenix Thoroughbred colorbearer would have to jump up markedly to threaten here, off a less than ideal preparation. Hopefully we’ll see him prosper down the road.
Photo by Jamie Newell/Horsephotos.com