Tom Ludt remembers the phone conversation he had with Chad Brown to discuss sending him Gronkowski to train. Let’s just say it was met with muted enthusiasm.
Though Gronkowski qualified for the Kentucky Derby via the European Road to the Derby series, he was forced to miss that race due to a temperature. Despite Gronkowski having never raced beyond a mile or on dirt, his connections wanted to target the Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles.
“I’ve known him forever and he said to me ‘Tom, if you want me to take the horse, I’ll take the horse,’” said Ludt, the equine manager for Aamer Abdulaziz’s Phoenix Thoroughbred III, which owns the majority of Gronkowski.
Now, to be fair, Brown was otherwise preoccupied. He was preparing Good Magic for the Kentucky Derby, where the horse would ultimately finish second. Brown hadn’t really spent much time thinking about Gronkowski, the horse named for the New England Patriots all-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“I knew the horse had a reputation because of his name, and he had qualified for the Derby and got sick,” Brown said. “I didn’t put much thought into it until he actually arrived and I put my two eyes on him.”
Gronkowski arrived in Brown’s barn on the same day that Good Magic, the Kentucky Derby runner-up, shipped to Baltimore where he would run in the Preakness a few days later.
It was a week after the Preakness, on May 26, that Brown breezed Gronkowski for the first time. He worked a sharp half-mile in 47.99 seconds in company with Engage. Brown was intrigued. A week later, Brown worked Gronkowski again and gave him the green light to run in the Belmont with another good move.
Ludt remembers sitting in Brown’s Belmont Park office and the trainer telling him “‘I didn’t realize how good this horse is,’” Ludt recalled.
Still, Brown wasn’t sure what to think about his chances in the Belmont.
“As we approached the Belmont I started to really examine all these things he was going to have to do for the first time and it looked daunting,” Brown said. “But he gave us hope based on the way he was training, which was borderline exceptional.”
In the Belmont, Gronkowski broke slowly under Jose Ortiz and was last, 14 lengths off the uncontested pace established by Justify. Gronkowski launched a bid leaving the six-furlong marker, advanced adroitly along the inside, and moved into second turning for home. He couldn’t sustain his run through the final three-sixteenths, however, as Justify sped off into the history books as the 13th Triple Crown winner.
Brown said he thought: “What if he broke a little better? What if someone would had have went with Justify? What if I would have had a couple of extra weeks with the horse? Who knows? You just kind of turn the page and move on.”
Brown was hoping to move on with Gronkowski to the Jim Dandy on July 28. But after Gronkowski’s first work back following the Belmont Stakes, the horse “tweaked an ankle,” according to Ludt, and that kept Gronkowski off the work tab for a month.
“Welcome to the world of training top horses,” Brown said. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. He had a little issue and missed a prep. We had to go to Plan B and set up a totally different schedule. Fortunately, I believe this horse has enough foundation and ability to overcome it. His work [Sunday] morning was the best I’ve seen.”
Gronkowski has indeed trained terrific the last five weeks at Saratoga. Brown now has confidence that with a better break than in Belmont Gronkowski has a real shot to win the Travers, though his namesake is not expected to be in attendance after playing in an exhibition game Friday night in North Carolina.
“He’s training sharper in the morning,” Brown said. “Whether that leads to a better break out of the gate, we’ll see. He’s definitely more aggressive. Now that we’ve had more time with the horse, we’ve gotten to know him better. I just feel he’s in a nice rhythm right now.”
“Once he warmed up, he’s been really excited about this horse,” Ludt said of Brown. “We’re excited. All we can ask for is a good break, a good trip, and hope we come flying down the lane and get to the wire first.”
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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