Rob Gronkowski has never ridden a horse, but never mind that.
The Patriots tight end is a proud co-owner of a real, live racehorse, also named Gronkowski, who will be running at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. The third leg of the Triple Crown is analyzed by oddsmakers and journalists with the precision required in Gronkowski's day job, though his own Belmont scouting report is a bit, well, open-ended. “Horses run around in a circle on dirt and whoever gets first place, gets first place,” he says.
Gronkowski the horse was named by a former trainer and Patriots fan who was inspired by the horse’s big, strapping stature—similar to that of New England’s freakishly athletic tight end. But naming a racehorse can be a tricky business. The horse’s ownership group, Phoenix Thoroughbreds, submitted the name to the Jockey Club, the governing body that approves racehorse names and keeps track of genealogy records. The Jockey Club carefully vets each submitted name to ensure it’s compliant and not a duplicate name of another racehorse or a name used in recent years. There are 17 types of names that will be rejected, such as a living person’s name without his or her permission, names made entirely of initials and names longer than 18 letters. (Phoenix had the name Belichick on deck, in case Gronkowski was rejected.)
But Gronkowski was accepted, and now one question remains: Will the animal live up to the lofty expectations of the name?
“Hopefully if they named it after me, it’s just a beast of a horse, it's fast and it's ready to roll,” Gronkowski the tight end says.
Gronkowski the horse is, indeed, a bit of a beast. The horse’s current trainer, Chad Brown, estimates that Gronk stands about 16 hands tall and weighs around 1,300 pounds. In comparison, Justify, the winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, weighs about 1,268 pounds and American Pharoah weighed about 1,150 pounds when he won the Triple Crown in 2015.
“The good news is this horse ended up being good,” says Tom Ludt, VP of equine operations for Phoenix Thoroughbreds. “Sometimes the horse doesn’t end up being good, and once you use a name, it's a very long period before you have a name back again.”
Gronkowski began his racing career this past September in England, and by the end of March, Gronkowski qualified for the Kentucky Derby through a quirky rule that allows a spot in the race for one European horse who earns enough points in a specific series of European races. Throughout the racing season, Phoenix and the horse’s former trainer Jeremy Noseda had been tagging Gronkowski the tight end in tweets about Gronkowski the horse, in an attempt to catch the NFL player’s interest.
“I kept seeing this horse popping up on Twitter winning races and winning races,” Gronkowski says. “All of a sudden I see the horse is going to the Kentucky Derby, and I'm like, wow, no way.”
Once Gronkowski saw that his namesake was headed to the Run for the Roses, he wanted a piece of the horse. Phoenix connected with Rob and his dad, Gordie, and worked out an agreement for Rob to own a portion of the horse, though neither side would say specifically what percentage of the horse Rob bought.
Gronkowski the horse ultimately didn’t race in the Kentucky Derby because he came down with a fever a week before the race, so the Belmont Stakes will be Gronkowski’s first race on American soil. Gronkowski the human, who declined to discuss his current contract and recent absence from New England’s voluntary workouts, is planning to attend the Belmont on Saturday to cheer on his horse—the first time he’s ever seen Gronkowski in action.
Gronk fans no doubt delighted in the fact that the horse’s early unoffical odds were 69–1, but they are currently set at 25–1, a longshot to challenge in this race. The Belmont Stakes will be Gronkowski’s race first on dirt and first at the mile-and-half distance—the longest track of the three Triple Crown races. Gronkowski the horse raced mainly on turf surfaces in England, but Brown says he’s been impressed with how well Gronkowski has performed on the dirt in recent workouts. His success depend on whether he has the stamina to maintain his speed into the final turn of the Belmont track.
“He's a longshot because he came from Europe and no one has seen him,” Ludt says. “But I think as he gets closer to the race and people see him training up to it, they will see he carries a great presence. He is a confident horse, and he covers the ground really comfortably.”
Gronk is well aware that his namesake has slim to no chance of contending, but he’s not interested in your excuses as to why his horse isn’t good enough.
“We’re trying to go for the win,” he says. “You've always heard so many stories where the underdog wins, you just never know. Maybe my horse found a niche on how to get faster somewhere down the line in the last couple of weeks. Maybe when he got sick and missed the Kentucky Derby, for some reason it gave him extra powers, and now that he recovered he might be even faster.”
Brown only recently became Gronkowski’s trainer, and because he’s new to the horse he was undecided until this past Saturday on whether to run Gronk at the Belmont. The horse turned in an impressive workout at Belmont that morning, convincing Brown that the horse was ready for the race. A cynic might argue that racing this largely unknown horse at the Belmont is a publicity stunt to harness Gronkowski’s celebrity presence and NFL fan base for the benefit of horse racing, but Brown argues vehemently against that idea.
“This horse was put in my care with the objective of trying to make the Belmont Stakes but with no pressure for me to do so if I didn't think it was the right thing,” he says. “When I run this horse Saturday, it is only because Chad Brown thinks this horse has a chance. Nobody has told me to run this horse in this race if I don't want to.”
Deep down, Gronk the person just knows that the stars are aligned for Gronk the horse. Not only were the early odds 69–1, his favorite number because of its secondary meaning, but the race is run on June 9 (6/9), a date he’s dubbed the Official Gronk National Holiday. “I can’t even explain that coincidence,” he laughs. “It’s just wild.”
Gronkowski the tight end is looking forward to finally meeting his horse brother. He suggests maybe he’ll hop in the saddle for a minute, and he’s even selling t-shirts of himself riding Gronkowski. “It would be pretty cool to be able to hop on the horse and be chilling on it, just to see how big his frame is and how strong his muscles are,” he says.
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” Ludt says with a laugh when he hears of Gronk’s jockey dreams. “You don’t get on these kinds of horses, especially big people.”
The highly skilled and lightweight jockeys who ride thoroughbred racehorses weigh anywhere from 105 to 116 pounds, and when racing, a horse doesn’t carry any more than 126 pounds. In contrast, Gronkowski the tight end stands 6' 6" and 265 pounds. In other words, the weight of a jockey plus the saddle weighs about as much as Gronk’s left side.
Gronkowski the horse’s Patriots connection goes deeper than just his name. Trainer Chad Brown has met Bill Belichick several times through a mutual friend in racing and gleaned some advice on leadership from the five-time Super Bowl champion coach. “I think he is really the benchmark of how to lead successfully,” Brown says.
The two have talked shop about the similarities between the job of an NFL coach and a thoroughbred horse trainer. Brown manages 200 racehorses as the “head coach” of his racing operation. He and Belichick have discussed the importance of keeping players and horses healthy throughout the season, how to get the most out of their staff and how to lead at the highest level of pressure and responsibility.
“For me, my staff is split between equine and human,” Brown says. “My players are my horses, and my coworkers are also my teammates, so I need to show good leadership every day to get the most out of them to execute their specific tasks. It’s ironic that this horse comes to me named after one of their all-time great players when it's their coach that I think is an unbelievable example of winning.”
Winning the Triple Crown is a rare and impressive feat, but Gronk admits he won’t feel the slightest tinge of sympathy in the unlikely scenario that his horse prevents Justify, the odds-on favorite ahead of the Belmont, from entering that exclusive winner’s circle. “I wouldn’t feel bad at all,” he says. “I’d feel amazing. That story would just be nuts.”
Gronkowski turned heads in a loud red-and-green checkered suit and bright red shoes when he attended the Kentucky Derby three years ago with Patriots teammates. He hasn’t picked out his Belmont outfit yet, but plans to go with a more understated suit this year. “I want to keep all the attention on the horse, so he has the best odds of winning,” he says. “I am putting all my marbles on my horse.”
The odds may not be in his favor, but never mind that, Gronk is betting on himself.
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