What to Make of Kentucky Derby ‘Wild Card’ Gronkowski

Gronkowski earned a place in the Kentucky Derby with his win in the 32red Burradon Stakes in England. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2018 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.

This week we take a closer look at Gronkowski, winner of the 32red Burradon Stakes on March 30 at Newcastle.


Dark Bay or Brown Colt

Sire (Father): Lonhro

Dam (Mother): Four Sugars, by Lookin At Lucky

Owner: Phoenix Thoroughbred Limited

Breeder: Epic Thoroughbreds (Ky.)

Trainer: Jeremy Noseda

The term “wild card” gets tossed around in sports quite often, but in the case of Gronkowski, the horse, much like his namesake, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, the moniker is fitting. Nothing Gronkowski does on Kentucky Presented by Yum! Brands day would be a complete shock — well, there would be many people stunned should he win — as he has never raced on a dirt main track nor started at a U.S. racetrack. But Gronkowski earned his way to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs (where hopefully, the football player will be cheering him on), so let’s evaluate his chances.

Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard

Ability: Purchased for a little more than $400,000 (300,000 guineas converts to $404,492) by owner Phoenix Thoroughbred Limited at a 2-year-olds in training auction in 2017 in England, Gronkowski made his debut later that year on Sept. 23 at Newbury. He ran a well-beaten seventh on the grass and followed with a runner-up finish on turf in October before trainer Jeremy Noseda decided to try him on synthetic surfaces.

He won his first try on a synthetic surface in his final race at 2, posting a dominant 4 ½-length win at 4-1 odds going a mile on Nov. 9 at Chelmsford.

In his 3-year-old debut, excitement started to build for Gronkowski as he led from start to finish in a six-length romp as the overwhelming favorite on Feb. 9 at Newcastle. After a much-tougher three-quarter-length victory, in which he rallied from sixth to win a one-mile race at Kempton on March 7, Gronkowki was pointed to a U.S. Kentucky Derby prep.

Plans changed when Noseda learned that Gronkowski’s European points would not carry over and be added to the points he might earn in the U.S., so he opted to remain in Europe where Gronkowski would most likely be a slam dunk to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

In his final prep, the 32red Burradon Stakes on March 30 at Newcastle, Gronkowski was rated a bit farther back than his previous start. He picked up the pace when asked to accelerate but there were a few tenuous moments when it looked like a victory was in jeopardy. Gronkowski was able to grind down the competition and pull away to win by 1 ¼ lengths.

The Burradon was not especially impressive visually, but synthetic races rarely are. So many start with a relatively easy gallop, before a large cluster of horses sprints for the finish line. Consider a horse with an incredible turn of foot like 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense looked ordinary in his final prep in the Blue Grass Stakes, which that year was held on the synthetic Polytrack surface that Keeneland used for 7 ½ years.

Now 4-for-4 on the main track, all of the races at a mile or just a little more than a mile, Gronkowski clearly has ability. But the top horses in Europe race on the grass not on synthetic, so the quality of competition he has been facing is a significant concern.

The Kentucky Derby will be a steep rise in class, by far the steepest class hurdle for any runner in the field, but there remains the possibility that Gronkowski is a dirt horse who will take a major step forward switching to dirt.

If he does, could he be a factor in the outcome? It’s possible, but he also faces additional hurdles such as trans-Atlantic travel, acclimating to the U.S., dealing with a massive crowd at Churchill that you wouldn’t find at Newcastle, an additional quarter-mile, and a much, much different pace scenario. In short, I’m not optimistic.

Running style: While Gronkowski has set the pace and won, I think it’s a good bet that the faster pace typical in U.S. racing will force the dark bay or brown colt off the pace as he has been in his two starts this season. In fact, I could see a situation where he drops well of out it early and looks to make one big, late run. The swifter pace could present a problem to Gronkowski as the race will set up much differently than the synthetic races he’s competed in while racing in England.

Connections: Amer Abdulaziz’s Phoenix Thoroughbred Limited owns Gronkowski. Abdulaziz is a native of Bahrain who lives in Dubai and has been involved for years with Arabian racehorses. He jumped into the Thoroughbred racing game in a big way in 2017, investing more than $25 million at auctions in the U.S. and Europe. In addition to Gronkowski, Phoenix Thoroughbreds’ initial foray has been rewarded with Grade 1 winner Dream Tree.

Trainer Jeremy Noseda is keenly familiar with American racing. After working for John Gosden and John Dunlop, he started his career in Southern California, where he trained stakes winners Magic Feeling, Chequer, and Grafin before moving his operation to Newmarket in 1998. Best known in the U.S. as the trainer of 2004 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Wilko, multiple graded stakes winner Grandeur, and Grade 1 winner Western Aristocrat, Noseda has trained European Group 1 winners Fleeting Spirit, Sixties Icon, Araafa, Soldier's Tale, Simply Perfect, Proclamation, and Balmont.

Gronkowski after his Burradon win.
Gronkowski after his Burradon win. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Jamie Spencer, a two-time champion jockey in Europe, is the regular rider for Gronkowski. He has never ridden in the Kentucky Derby, but he won English and Irish Oaks in 2012 with Sariska, the Irish One Thousand Guineas in 2013 on Just the Judge, in 2002 with Gossamer, and in 1998 with Tarascon.

Pedigree: There are two key questions with Gronkowski’s pedigree: can he excel on a dirt main track and can he make the jump from one mile to 1 ¼ miles?

Let’s start on top with his sire, Lonhro, the 2004 Australian Horse of the Year and champion miler.

Both Lonhro and his sire, Octagonal, raced exclusively on grass in Australia. Lonhro probably was best at a mile but also was a Group 1 winner at 1 1/4 miles, winning the Darley Australian Cup in March 2014. Octagonal also was Horse of the Year in Australia and was a winner at the Group 1 level at 1 ½ miles.

Lonhro stood his first season at stud in the U.S. in 2012 after serving in Australia, where his first foals to race were in the 2007-08 season. Group 1-winning sprinter Beaded came out of his first crop and Lonhro has 46 group/graded stakes winners from 12 crops of racing age through April 16. Australian champion 2-year-old Pierro and New Zealand champion sprinter Bounding are two standouts in the Southern Hemisphere, while his best U.S. runners to date are graded stakes winners Isotherm, Holding Gold, and Shakhimat, all best on grass.

Gronkowski’s dam (mother) is unraced Four Sugars, by 2010 Preakness Stakes winner Lookin At Lucky. His second dam (maternal grandmother), Iridescence, by Mt. Livermore, won twice and raced exclusively in dirt sprints, but she produced Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap winner Flashy Bull and Pink Viper, a multiple stakes winner around two turns on dirt.

Other notable family members include Canadian champion and sire Perfect Soul, turf Grade 1 winner Zipessa, and 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf runner-up Stopshoppingmaria.

The bottom half of Gronkowski’s pedigree, specifically the first two generations, offers some reason for hope that he could perform well on dirt but it hardly screams 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby horse. And so far, Lonhro has proved a solid sire of turf and synthetic racehorses but has done little to suggest he’s capable of an elite dirt runner.

There are simply too many questions with Gronkowski to endorse him for the Kentucky Derby: shipping from Europe, trying dirt for the first time, facing a much swifter pace, tackling significantly tougher competition, stretching out an extra quarter-mile, unusual pedigree for 1 ¼ miles on dirt. This looks like one of the better, deeper fields for the Kentucky Derby in recent years with multiple candidates with impeccable credentials.

Could Gronkowski take a giant leap and make a serious impact on this year’s Kentucky Derby? Of course, I’m just not confident in his chances nor am I willing to bet money on it.

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