Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
The rollercoaster nature of horse racing has been evident in the recent highs and lows of Phoenix Thoroughbreds' boutique racing stable, which will aim for a new peak with Gronkowski in Saturday's Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets – and the colt's namesake, NFL star Rob Gronkowski, will be in attendance.
Phoenix, launched last year as an investment fund focused on Thoroughbred racing, came out blazing. By mid-February, the stable's record stood at 7 wins in 10 starts in the U.S., including back-to-back Grade 1 triumphs from 3-year-old filly Dream Tree that stamped her as one of the early favorites for the Longines Kentucky Oaks. Across the pond, Phoenix also was poised to capitalize on a new European avenue to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve as owners of Gronkowski, who swept two qualifying races in England.
His second win, on March 30, came just days after Dream Tree bowed out of Kentucky Oaks contention with a minor issue that required some down time. By late April, Gronkowski’s Derby bid also ended up falling to the wayside, as the colt developed an infection that forced him to miss the race but was not so severe as to prevent him to miss a significant amount of training time.
"We have definitely had our highs and lows, but this is what horse racing is all about," said Amer Abdulaziz, the Dubai-based CEO of Phoenix. "There are no guarantees."
In experiencing the disappointment of missing the Derby, Abdulaziz and his team sensed an opportunity and decided to move Gronkowski to the U.S. and to a new trainer, two-time Eclipse Award winner Chad Brown, in New York. Abdulaziz and the company's American racing manager, Tom Ludt, did so with the Belmont Stakes in mind, but they left the decision up to Brown.
"We had always thought the horse had the ability to be competitive in the Triple Crown and his former trainer, Jeremy Noseda, always believed he would do well on the dirt," Ludt said. "No matter what happened in the Derby, we liked the idea of the Belmont – because of his shoulder, his stride and his scope, the mile and a half should suit him."
Ludt said Brown at first was very skeptical – and who could blame him, since the colt has never raced on dirt, never been beyond a mile or around two turns, and has a pedigree (by the Australian-bred sire Lonhro) that hardly screams of a preference for dirt.
"After seeing the horse train and breeze, Chad was convinced the horse loves the dirt and is the real deal," Ludt said. "After the second breeze, Chad said, 'Man, this horse can win this race.' Obviously I hope he is right, but it's hard to doubt Chad with his success."
The Belmont also will be an opportunity for Phoenix to further its relationship with Gronkowski, the New England Patriots tight end, who bought a piece of the colt this spring when the Derby was on the horizon.
Phoenix arranged a sponsorship deal with Sentient Jets for the Belmont that includes a charter flight that will allow Gronkowski to travel to New York early Saturday afternoon after hosting a youth clinic in the morning.
"Of course I'm hoping our horse wins and Rob gets to experience that, but on the other hand, if Justify wins the Triple Crown, that will be such an atmosphere at Belmont Park that he will witness up close, almost like a big playoff football game," Ludt said. "Maybe with this he will become even more interested in horse racing."