It takes a pro to recognize a pro.
Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots All-Pro tight end destined for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, now recognizes that his Thoroughbred namesake and all racehorses are also extraordinary professional athletes with exceptional physical talent and the strong will to win.
"That's what I did learn, for sure, from asking questions ... they have the focus, grit, and the competitiveness. It's insane. I'm learning all that," said the two-time Super Bowl winner and five-time Pro Bowler during a short break after practice in the Patriots pre-season training camp.
Gronkowski, 29, was a horse racing neophyte when Phoenix Thoroughbreds CEO Amer Abdulaziz acquired a dark bay son of Lonhro out of the Lookin at Lucky mare Four Sugars for $404,240 at the 2017 Tattersalls Craven Breeze-Up Sale and named the colt for the NFL star.
"Gronk," as the man is more commonly called, had been to the Kentucky Derby with teammates NFL MVP Tom Brady and Wes Welker, who owned Grade 3 winner Undrafted and other stakes winners, but his experience was mostly contained to the party-hearty atmosphere in the stratosphere of the Churchill Downs luxury suites.
Once Gronkowski the colt racked up four straight wins, including a stakes score, to qualify for the one spot designated for a European horse under the Kentucky Derby points system, and after former trainer Jeremy Noseda kept tagging Gronk in his tweets, the player started paying attention. One thing led to another, and Gronkowski soon owned an undisclosed share of the horse.
Gronkowski never ran in the Derby due to spiking a fever, but he was subsequently transferred to reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown and pointed to the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. It was in New York that introductions were made.
"When I met Gronkowski the horse, that was my first time being up and close to a horse. It made me appreciate just how athletic they are, how strong they are, how detailed their muscles are, how their bodies work. It put it into perspective that if a horse can run like that and do what they do, then if I do the right things and have the right technique then I can keep going, too," Gronkowski said. "A horse is a horse, of course, but it puts it into perspective all the hard work and training that the horse puts in to be able to run and compete like that."
The smart money didn't give Gronkowski much of a shot in the Belmont, sending him off at just over 24-1 in the field of 10, and after he lumbered out of the gate and languished at the back of the pack in the early going, it seemed they were right. But once the colt got to the half-mile pole he began to show interest in the race, and once jockey Jose Ortiz got Gronkowski over to the rail at the three-eighths pole, he showed his talent and determination.
Gronkowski staged a strong rally from way off the pace, powering down the lane just like his namesake heading for the end zone, to finish behind Triple Crown champion Justify by only 1 ¾ lengths.
"He gave us a huge thrill, that's for sure. At first, I had my hand on my head thinking, 'Oh no. What's going on with him?' I didn't even see the slow start. I saw him like 10, 20 yards after the gates opened and I saw where the horse was and he was dead last, so far behind everyone else. The next thing you know, he just got his legs underneath him and put that bad start behind him and caught back up. That was such a thrill near the end. It was insane. Going from last to almost winning the race was a big thrill," Gronkowski said.
Since that near miss in the Belmont, Brown has pointed the colt to the Aug. 25 Runhappy Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. Amer Abdulaziz said the plans at this stage providing all goes well are three-fold: the $1.25 million Travers, the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic, and the $12 million Dubai World Cup Presented by Emirates Airline.
With Rob Gronkowski's celebrity status, star power, charismatic personality, and magnetism, the Phoenix Thoroughbreds connections would certainly like to have their partner attending the races. Abdulaziz said that he is trying to charter a private plane to bring the player to the Travers.
Nonetheless, the extreme demands on NFL players once they go into training camp, start playing pre-season games, and get into the regular season won't allow for that. The Patriots play a pre-season game against the Panthers in Charlotte, N.C. on the night of August 24.
"There's no way I'm going to the Travers,” said Gronkowski. “That's the problem now that we're in camp and the pre-season has started and we're close to the start of the regular season. It's not going to be doable, obviously. But I'm going to be updated and will hear what's going on and how the race goes. I wish I could get one day off and go check that out. But that's why I went to the Belmont. It was a time when I knew I could go see my horse and see him race and meet everyone and get involved. But as of now, I'll just have to hear updates every time.”
Forget about the Breeders' Cup Classic Nov. 3 as well. The Patriots host the Green Bay Packers the following day at Gillette Stadium.
"There is no way," he laughed. "We're going to have to wait until the off-season again until I can get to any of his next races."
The 2019 Dubai World Cup is at the end of March and during the NFL off-season. Moreover, Dubai is the headquarters of Phoenix Thoroughbreds, which was formed in 2017, and the home of Abdulaziz.
"Amer is a great guy, and we hit it off as soon as we met. We were talking about Dubai. I've never been there, but I've heard it's a great city with lots of great things. If that can be a reason to go and the horse is racing there, I can go to Dubai, check it all out and hang out with Amer. I can go see it all as a tourist and as a part owner of the horse and go check out that. We'll see how that goes. Obviously, it's something that's far away, but it's an option down the road," said Gronkowski.
Meanwhile, Gronkowski is in Patriots camp, where the grueling daily schedule of practices, meetings, and film study is rinse and repeat. Last Sunday afternoon, he was unaware of Gronkowski's five-furlong breeze in 1:01.44 under new jockey Joel Rosario that morning at Saratoga in preparation for the Travers until informed by this reporter.
"No, I didn't hear about that. We just got done with practice. How did he do? Great! That's awesome," he said. "I don't talk to Chad or Amer too often. At first when we were getting together and I was learning all about the horse and everything we'd talk a lot. When I went to the Belmont we all met each other and had a great time. We got to know each other. But we only met that once. With our different schedules, and how busy we are, we just keep each other updated when we can. We don't talk as much as we did when we started off. I'm in camp right now, and he's running around with the horses."
Abdulaziz certainly is. He formed Phoenix last year with an initial investment of $25 million in bloodstock and his global operation has divisions in the United States, Europe, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates. A top-level player at the sales worldwide, Aug. 7 at Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga Select Yearling Sale he went to $1.3 million for a filly by Medaglia d'Oro out of Dawn Raid, making her a half sister to 2016 Preakness Stakes winner Exaggerator . She was the highest-priced filly and the second-most expensive purchase at the sale.
Phoenix Thoroughbreds also recently signed the ticket at the 2018 Tattersalls Craven Breeze-Up sale on a 2-year-old colt named Favre. As in, the namesake of former three-time NFL MVP, 11-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl-winning Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre.
"I didn't know that. That's cool. Amer must be going crazy out there, and he must love the NFL, too," said Gronk.
But Gronkowski won't own a piece of Favre, or of any other Phoenix horse for the time being.
"That's awesome how many Amer is buying. But as of right now, I'm not looking at getting into any others," he said. "It's cool to see how the horse racing goes down, and I got to see some of the background behind the scenes, meet some trainers and see how they train the horses and all that type of stuff. It was super cool and super neat to learn about. But for now I've just got this one horse, and I'm having fun with it."
Gronkowski is enjoying his foray into Thoroughbred racing and it is still somewhat of a fancy for him, but there may come a time after he hangs up his football cleats that he will be more concerned with athletes wearing racing plates.
"It's definitely a whole other world and a whole new world for me. I'm not going to sit here and say I know everything about the sport because I don't. Not at all. I'm just interested to where when I get some free time I can get to check it out and get to learn about the sport. I'm not in-depth about the sport and how everything goes down, but it's so cool to learn bits and pieces about it. As time goes on, as I watch more races and stuff, and I get to meet more people and ask more questions, I can get more involved," he said. "It's crazy how much there is to learn and what you can learn. It's kind of like football. You can never know enough about football, and you can always learn more. I would say the same thing about racehorses."