Justify raced down the homestretch, the distance between him and immortality getting shorter and shorter as the packed crowd at Belmont Park roared louder and louder.
Quite surprisingly, Gronkowski was the last challenge to Justify becoming the 13th Triple Crown winner on Saturday.
“I’m really proud of my horse,” said Chad Brown, who took over as Gronkowski’s trainer from Jeremy Noseda in early May. “The horse ran a great race. He had a lot of things against him. I’m really proud of the way he ran on the dirt with so many things going against him. Then, he misses the break and then there’s a soft pace.”
The namesake of the Patriots tight end, who owns a minority stake in the horse and was in the paddock area as he was being saddled for the 150th running of the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes, was making his North American debut after running his first six races in Britain. Gronkowski never had run on dirt before, or raced in a graded stakes or gone past a mile.
Yet he finished second, one and three-quarters lengths behind Justify after running 10th through the first half mile.
“I was shocked to see him that far back,” Brown said. “The horse didn’t break well. Even though we warmed the horse up well in the post parade and we kept the blinkers on him, he just didn’t break at all.”
Still, when Gronkowski made his move, he moved up quickly.
He had closed to third with a quarter mile remaining.
“My thought turning for home was that he had a shot to get [Justify] if Justify was vulnerable at a mile and a half,” Brown said. “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.”
“He broke a bit slow,” jockey Jose Ortiz said. “He’s a horse from England. After that, I didn’t have any choice. I had to drop in and save all the ground. He handled the dirt. I worked him twice and he handled it so I was optimistic. We got a good trip, it worked out well. I wish he could have broken a little bit better.”
So despite Gronkowski’s strong finish, his connections were left wondering, what if?
Gronkowski had not raced since March 30, when he won his fourth straight race at a mile. He was brought to the United States and was pointed toward the Kentucky Derby but spiked a fever about 10 days before the Triple Crown’s first leg and skipped the race.