He has never run beyond a mile. He has only been on this side of the ocean for about a month. He has yet to run a race over the dirt. And, by the way, he and his current conditioner are still getting acquainted with one another.
For all those reasons and then some, it would take an epic level of handicapping to come up with a scenario in which Phoenix Thoroughbreds' stakes victor Gronkowski ends up in the Belmont Park winner's circle June 9. His two-time Eclipse Award winning trainer, Chad Brown, acknowledges as much, knowing that as masterful as he is at getting European imports to thrive in his program, saddling the son of Lonhro to victory in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) would qualify as one of the biggest upsets this side of Sarava.
Gronkowski is up against a massive favorite in dual classic winner Justify, the horse who has yet to meet a circumstance he couldn't conquer in his quest to make the list of Triple Crown winners a baker's dozen. In case anyone is wondering why a trainer known for his ability to place his charges in just the right spot is taking such a seemingly wild swing, Brown only needs to glance at the evidence around him to know this is far from an off-base attempt.
"It's a situation where I look at my office and I see pictures from these group 1 races, and not every one of those pictures is the best horse," Brown said from just outside that Belmont Park office June 7. "The best horse doesn't always win. That's why it's a horse race. I've won a lot of big races to this point where I felt the best horse we had won, and I've won some other ones thinking we might not have had the best horse, but it worked out on that day—he or she had the best trip, had the best weather conditions, had the best racing luck within the race.
"Those things can happen."
If the unexpected transpires Saturday and Justify suffers his first loss, Gronkowski would be a shocker to play the role of conqueror, but a popular one nonetheless.
Named for the New England Patriots' ebullient tight end Rob Gronkowski, the dark bay colt garnered a following in the states thanks to his moniker even before he was transferred from Newmarket-based trainer Jeremy Noseda to Brown's barn last month. When the equine Gronkowski captured the March 30 32red Burradon Stakes at Newcastle to help secure an invitation to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), the buzz was such that his human counterpart purchased a minority interest in him.
What figured to be a most interesting gathering of connections at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May went sideways in April, however, when Gronkowski was felled by a slight infection that prevented him from shipping. With the Belmont Stakes as the new target, the decision was made to see whether Brown's history of working wonders with international transfers could produce another remarkable success story.
"I didn't know what to expect (with Gronkowski)," said Brown, whose list of champions who began their careers in Europe include Stacelita, Zagora, and Flintshire . "First of all, when you see the horse, he's a very impressive-looking horse. He's a big, strong, chiseled, impressive animal. Then you get to training him a few days, and you see that he has a really good mind. I find him to be a very intelligent horse, a good mover, and he came in to me in really outstanding condition.
"He was sent to me with the first objective being the Belmont Stakes, but not at all costs if I didn't think it was the right thing to do once I got to know the horse. As I trained the horse, I did my part to at least put him on a path to get to the Belmont … and in fairness, the horse passed all the tests."
Brown's ability to unearth new layers of talent from horses adjusting to stateside racing is an uncanny one—as his most recent such grade 1 winner, Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1T) victor Sistercharlie, demonstrates. Much of the reason he has such widespread success in that realm is that he doesn't adhere to a one-program-fits-all philosophy.
"We have a basic system when they come in, but once they arrive, they sort of separate into their own individual programs," Brown said. "We're getting horses from Europe or getting horses from South America … some of them are coming in to make a race on a shorter time frame, some of them come over and there is no time frame and I have more time to work with them.
"They all come from different programs over there, different types of racing, so when they come in, I just try to evaluate each situation individually."
The transition is one Gronkowski has appeared to handle seamlessly. His stout frame has gotten over the Belmont oval as well as his trainer could have asked, with his first on-site breeze a four-furlong move in :47.99 May 26. He got another lung opener June 2, going five furlongs in 1:01.87, after which Brown said he felt not giving his new charge a chance in the 1 1/2-mile classic would be doing him a disservice.
"He's had two outstanding breezes to my eye," said Brown, who saddled champion Good Magic to a runner-up effort in this year's Kentucky Derby and won his first Triple Crown race last year when he upset the Preakness Stakes (G1) with Cloud Computing. "The big unknown is … you have a horse going a half-mile farther than he's ever gone, off a short layoff, after a brief illness where he missed a little bit of training, and he shipped over here. If I was handicapping the race, I would say, 'Wow, objectively this horse would have to overcome a lot to win.' I understand that. But I keep thinking about, man, he worked so well. So you have to try.
"I wish I had a little more time with the horse and had a better handle just for my own peace of mind that I knew exactly what his foundation was, exactly how fit he was. But from what I've seen, I've been extremely impressed."