The dark bay colt named after the football star was summarily discounted in the June 9 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1).
There were many reasons for doubt.
Gronkowski had never raced on dirt, had never raced farther than a mile, qualified but didn't run in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) because he spiked a fever, switched trainers before the race, and only had two published works ahead of the most difficult start of his career.
He was assigned odds of 12-1 on the morning line, and the snickering from handicappers began: How many people will wager on this horse just because of his name?
But Gronkowski went off at 24-1 and broke dead last. When Justify ran the first quarter-mile in :23.37, Gronkowski was 14 3/4 lengths behind the leader and eight lengths behind Free Drop Billy, who raced ninth in the 10-horse field.
There was one horse, however, who was a threat to Justify's Triple Crown bid at the top of the Belmont Park stretch.
It was the horse named after the football player.
Jockey Jose Ortiz rode the rail through the final turn of the 1 1/2-mile test, angled out, and loomed behind Justify, ready to break plenty of hearts.
Ultimately, Gronkowski flattened out and finished second, 1 3/4 lengths back, but he came in another 1 3/4 lengths clear of third-place finisher Hofburg. Gronkowski likely would have been even closer to Justify at the wire had he not shown his inexperience by failing to switch leads for a significant portion of the stretch run.
"My thought turning for home was that he had a shot to get him if Justify was vulnerable at a mile and a half," said Gronkowski's trainer, Chad Brown, who took over the care of Phoenix Thoroughbreds' colt from Jeremy Noseda in May. "Even though the fractions were soft for a horse of his caliber, still he had to go a mile and a half. And I thought maybe, because I could see Gronkowski flying, but he just couldn't get to that horse."
The reality is the race Gronkowski ran would win quite a few Belmonts, even though the third leg of the Triple Crown is thought to be unkind to deep closers and hasn't produced a last-to-first winner since Jazil in 2006.
"It is what it is, and I'm really proud of his effort," said Brown, who voiced his frustration that the other jockeys in the race didn't challenge Justify on the front end. "When he was that far back early, I said to myself, 'This is not going to end well.' He's just so far back, and there are quality horses in front of him, and then I saw the fractions and said, 'How is this horse going to close?'
"For him to close up that much ground off a really easy pace, it was a remarkable race that he ran. But it's still a loss. He ran great, but we didn't win."
The effort was enough to inspire optimism, however.
"It was exciting to think about what could be down the road with this horse," Brown said. "The Triple Crown is over. One chapter is over, and another one begins."