Gronkowski gives answers
Colt who had never run on dirt, or in America, has strong effort for Brown
Over the 11/2 miles of the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, Justify made Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith’s job easy. Smith got his horse out to the lead and he stayed there.
For Jose Ortiz on Gronkowski, who went off at 25-1, it was anything but easy.
Even trainer Chad Brown had some doubt as to whether the horse named for the fun-loving New England Patriots tight end could compete in the Belmont Stakes.
“This is a tall order, the horse is going to have to overcome a lot,” Brown, a Mechanicville native, told the Times Union earlier in the week.
The equine Gronkowski had never been to North America before, never run on the dirt before, and had only run in graded stakes competition once, when he won the Burradon Stakes in England on March 30. Add the layoff following the Burradon after an infection kept him out of the Kentucky Derby to the laundry list of pre-race questions.
“I worked the horse twice, he worked very well,” Ortiz said after the race. “We were very, very optimistic that he was going to run a good race the way he handled the dirt the first time I worked him.”
And then, when the gates snapped open, Gronkowski broke poorly, so poorly that he was dead last, eight lengths back of the closest horse, Free Drop Billy, after a quartermile. But then Ortiz, who already has nearly $110 million in career earnings at age 24, went to work and showed why he was the top jockey, by earnings at least, in the country last year.
“We were expected to break good and secure a spot, but we didn’t,” Ortiz said. “He broke a bit slow ... after that, I said, ‘Now I’m last. I’ve got to save all the ground to try to make up a couple lengths,’ and that’s what I did.”
After a mile, hugging the rail enabled Gronkowski and Ortiz to reel in Free Drop Billy. And then, over the next quarter-mile, they passed Blended Citizen, Restoring Hope, Noble Indy, Bravazo, Tenfold and Hofburg.
“Down the backside, I thought it was nearly impossible for (Justify) to get beat by anyone when I saw 1:13 and change,” Brown said. “I changed my mind a bit at the quarter pole when I saw Gronkowski save every bit of ground.”
Gronkowski and Ortiz had only two horses to beat now.
“When I passed the quarter pole, I was right behind (Justify), waiting for Vino Rosso to give up a little bit so I could work my way out,” Ortiz said. “At that point, I thought I had a real good shot, but when we entered the 3/16 and Justify switched leads, he got away from me a little bit.”
A little bit was 13/4 lengths when they hit the wire.
Ortiz and Brown finished behind Justify in all three legs of this year’s Triple Crown, second on Good Magic at the Kentucky Derby and fourth at the Preakness, where he broke from the trainer’s plan and pushed the pace with Good Magic only to have the horse fade down the stretch.
In the Belmont, that bad ride at Pimlico three weeks ago was forgotten.
“We might have disagreed at the Preakness, he gave me a milliondollar ride today on Gronkowski,” Brown said. “The horse broke badly; it wasn’t the jockey’s fault. And then from there, he saved every inch of ground. He got everything out of this horse. He did a great job for me.”
Justify and jockey Mike Smith win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park in Elmont. But Gronkowski, with Jose Ortiz on board, was close behind, giving a strong accounting of himself despite many questions about his readiness.