In an odd way, Rob Gron kowski, the stud football player, is going to make Saturday a little less nerve-wracking for one of the main connections of Gronkowski, the elite thoroughbred making his North American debut in the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes.
The Patriots tight end, who in April purchased a minority stake in Gronkowski before the horse spiked a fever and was forced to miss the Kentucky Derby, is expected to be at Belmont Park as Justify tries to become the 13th Triple Crown winner.
“We have a bodyguard because Rob is coming in,” said Tom Ludt, head of U.S. operations for Phoenix Thoroughbreds, which owns Gron kow ski. “I think it’s becoming more about Gronk the human than Gronk the horse. It’ll be different for us. Everybody is trying to get an interview. That’ll help keep me preoccupied. Rob is bringing his brother and his father. They’re not horse people. I’ll probably be answering questions, so that makes it a little better.”
Gronkowski, trained by Chad Brown and with Jose Ortiz up, will break from post No. 6 with 12-1 morning-line odds. Raced exclusively in Britain thus far, Gronkowski — yes, he was named after the tight end — has won four straight, all at a mile, and finished in the money in five of his six career starts.
Obviously, Gronkowski the human is excited about his horse’s chances.
“I heard about the horse like a year ago and I saw it and I was like, ‘That’s cool,’ you know?” Gronkowski told the media in Foxborough, Massachusetts this week. “Then all of a sudden, it’s like the horse is in the Kentucky Derby a year later. So it’s pretty wild. Pretty cool situation. It just shows, name the horse my name and it’s going to make it, baby.”
Still, Gronkowski the horse faces steep obstacles at Belmont beyond missing the Kentucky Derby and not being entered in the Preakness.
Gronkowski has never run on conventional dirt or in a graded stakes, let alone gone a mile and a half.
“I always thought he had the ability to be a dirt horse,” Ludt said. “That’s why he was going to the Derby. It’s not the issue of the dirt, but you have to have that first race to believe. That’s why we made the move to get him to Chad.”
Gronkowski has been based at Belmont Park since Phoenix Thoroughbreds switched him to Brown from his previous trainer, Jeremy Noseda, in early May.
“I told him at the beginning we’d love to run Belmont, but I would never tell you what to do,” Ludt said of his conversation with Brown. “He just told me, ‘Tom, this is a serious horse.’ ”
And having Gronkowski the human involved hasn’t hurt from a marketing standpoint, either.
“It’s a great factor for the horse industry,” Ludt said. “It has an effect on Phoenix and Chad. He’s brought attention that we wouldn’t have had. Any time you can reach into the sports audience deeper is great for the game.”