Trainer Jeremy Noseda figures it's time to find out if his improving 3-year-old Gronkowski is good enough to compete at the highest levels on dirt.
While a March 7 victory at Kempton Park moved Phoenix Thoroughbreds' Gronkowski to the top of the points list on the European Road to the Kentucky Derby, his connections plan to skip the final race in that series in favor of shipping to the United States for a start on dirt in one of the country's biggest prep races for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) at Churchill Downs.
Noseda said March 8 that he's leaning toward pointing the son of Lonhro to the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland, although the Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) at Aqueduct Racetrack also is an option. Both races are scheduled for April 7.
"If I get to Churchill Downs, I don't want to wonder if I'm legitimate; I want to know that I'm legitimate," Noseda said. "If we want to go for the big prize, this is the right way to approach it. The simple way—the easy way—would be to hang around in Europe. But is it the right way to try to do the job on the big day? I don't really think so."
Gronkowski posted a three-quarter-length victory in the Road to the Kentucky Derby conditions stakes Wednesday. That moved him into a tie with Saxon Warrior—who is not being considered for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1)—in the European Road to the Kentucky Derby points standings.
The European Road awards just one slot in the Derby starting gate. Another points race in the series, the Patton Stakes, which also awards 20 points to the winner, is scheduled for March 9 at Dundalk and will feature Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T) winner Mendelssohn, who is Triple Crown-nominated. The final race in the European Road is the Burradon conditions stakes March 30 at Newcastle, which awards 30 points to the winner. Noseda has opted to skip the Burradon.
"I think he deserves a chance at a big race in America, and if he's good enough, he'll earn his way in," Noseda said. "If you can't finish in the top three in one of those races, he's not legitimate for the Derby, anyway, and the points won't matter."
Each Derby qualifying points series—U.S., Europe, and Japan—are separate from one another, and points do not transfer. The Blue Grass and Wood Memorial award the top four finishers points on a 100-40-20-10 scale. A first- or second-place finish would ensure a spot in the Derby gate for Gronkowski, and a third-place finish would likely put him on the bubble.
Also, his 20 points in Europe could be enough to land that series' single spot. If the connections of the Burradon winner do not claim the Derby spot, it would move to the connections of the next horse on the list. If Gronkowski doesn't run well in his first start on dirt at either Keeneland or Aqueduct, Derby plans could be scrapped.
In the stretch of Wednesday's one-mile race, Gronkowski delivered a final move and opened a clear advantage on the Polytrack surface. Court House, who broke slowly and raced last early, rallied for second. The final time was 1:37.74. Noseda said Gronkowski has been brought along slowly to this point, but now he's in position for his biggest challenge.
"If he is legitimate, doing a prep race in America gives us our best chance—touch wood—come the main day," Noseda said. "If he's legitimate and you want to get to Kentucky, the best thing you can do to have a chance is to get to America and do it there, not in England on the Polytrack."
Noseda said he likes the idea of competing in the Blue Grass and then, if Gronkowski performs well there, staying at Keeneland to prepare for the Kentucky Derby. He noted that it's nice to have the option of training on the dirt main track or the Polytrack training track.
"I can stay and ship to Churchill a week out of the race," Noseda said. "Keeneland is a great place to train horses."
Noseda has had one Derby starter—Awesome Act, who finished off the board in 2010. Awesome Act, a son of Awesome Again , ran on dirt for the first time in the Gotham Stakes (G3), winning that 1 1/16-mile test. He then finished third to Eskendereya in the Wood Memorial Stakes (G1).
Bred in Kentucky by Epic Thoroughbreds, Gronkowski is out of Four Sugars, a daughter of 2010 Preakness Stakes (G1) winner Lookin At Lucky .