Gronkowski gives an­swers

Colt who had never run on dirt, or in Amer­ica, has strong ef­fort for Brown

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - HORSE RACING - Leif Skod­nick lskod­nick@time­sunion.com 518454-5425 @Leif­skod­nick ▶

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.”

Skip Dick­stein / Times Union

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.

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