Elmont, N.Y. — Rob Gronkowski the man was set to meet Gronkowski the horse Saturday, shortly before the Belmont Stakes contender went out to take his shot at disrupting Justify’s Triple Crown bid.
A former trainer named Gronkowski after the New England Patriots tight end, because both the colt and the NFL star have tall, powerful frames.
And Gronkowski the man added to the story when he bought a piece of the horse before a planned start in the Kentucky Derby.
Gronkowski the horse missed the Derby with a slight infection. He arrived at Belmont Park on a four-race winning streak, but because he’d never run on dirt or gone more than a mile, did not generate Patriots-level buzz as a serious contender.
Gronkowski the tight end was undaunted. “Hopefully if they named it after me, it’s just a beast of a horse, it’s fast and it’s ready to roll,” he told Sports Illustrated earlier in the week.
Trainer Chad Brown recently took charge of Gronkowski the horse, and as a Patriots fan, he was excited for the meeting of man and beast.
“Anytime we can bring some positive publicity to this great sport we work in, it’s a great thing,” Brown said. “I really hope this horse has success tomorrow because I think it can be a great thing all around. To meet one of the all-time great tight ends is exciting for me and is a nice little perk.”
Promising start for Baffert and Smith
As jockey Mike Smith rode Abel Tasman to a commanding victory in the $750,000 Ogden Phipps Stakes, trainer Bob Baffert hoped he was watching a preview of Justify’s run in the upcoming Belmont Stakes.
The 4-year-old filly, one of Baffert’s favorite horses, certainly got his day off to the desired start. She first marked herself a star when she won the Kentucky Oaks last year, but she’d gone winless since July.
“You could tell today the light got turned on,” Baffert said, wearing the electric blue sport coat he favors for Triple Crown races. “I am so proud of her.”
Baffert later continued his perfect day, winning the $400,000 Brooklyn Invitational with Hoppertunity.
Smith, who would later ride Justify, said Abel Tasman had shaken off rust in a disappointing performance the day before the Kentucky Derby.
“Today, I was able to get her into stride, and she really loves the surface here,” he said. “She loves Belmont Park. Some of her best races have been here.”
In the next race, the $700,000 Acorn Stakes, this year’s Kentucky Oaks champion, Monomoy Girl, added her seventh win in eight career starts.
She’s co-owned by former Johns Hopkins lacrosse player Sol Kumin, who also owns a minority share of Justify.
Bolt d’Oro fizzles
Once regarded as the likely favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Bolt d’Oro raced on the Belmont undercard and finished dead last in the $1.2-million Metropolitan Mile.
After Bolt d’Oro finished a disappointing 12th in the Derby, owner and trainer Mick Ruis flirted with taking another shot in the Preakness. He ultimately decided to give his horse a longer rest and line him up for a shorter race.
The Metropolitan Mile was plenty difficult, with an accomplished field of 4-, 5- and 6-year-old sprinters aiming to spoil Ruis’ plan. Steve Asmussen-trained Bee Jersey won the race, the second most lucrative of the day, leaving a fading Bolt d’Oro far behind.