Gronkowski, the winner of the European Road to the Kentucky Derby is headed to the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (G1) after a sharp work on Saturday.
It was the Chad Brown trainee’s second work since arriving at Belmont, having breezed four furlongs in 47.99 seconds last Saturday. Jockey Jose Ortiz, who will have the call on Gronkowski in the Belmont Stakes, was up again.
Gronkowski worked in company with Engage, who is targeting the Grade 2, $400,000 Woody Stephens presented by Mohegan Sun on Belmont Stakes Day, June 9.
“It went well, galloped out a good three-quarters and I was real happy with it,” Brown said of Gronkowski. “This horse hasn’t put a foot wrong since he’s arrived. He’s a real classy horse and came to me in outstanding condition.”
Gronkowski will be making his first North American start after going 4-1-0 in six career races in Great Britain. The son of the Australian-bred Lonhro, who won 11 Group 1 races from 2001-04, will be stretching out to the Belmont Stakes’ famed 1 ½-mile distance after winning four consecutive races at one mile.
“Based on his two workouts, he’s made to go a mile and a half on the dirt to me,” said Brown, who took over training duties from Jeremy Noseda last month. “In a perfect world, I wish I had him longer and had a better handle on the horse, but it is what it is and I’m fortunate to be in this position to go there with a chance to win.”
Gronkowski had been scheduled to work Friday morning before a driving rainstorm led Brown to move the work, which was held Saturday in the sunshine with temperatures in the high 70s.
“I was ready to breeze him yesterday, but then the rain came, but it worked out,” Brown said. “Today was always the day I preferred to work him anyway.”
Ortiz will be going for his second consecutive Belmont Stakes win after piloting Tapwrit to the winner’s circle in the “Test of the Champion” last year. Brown said he again received positive feedback from his rider, who will be looking to become the first jockey to win consecutive Belmont Stakes since Laffit Pincay, Jr. won three straight from 1982-84.
“He likes the horse and was as impressed with him as I was, and he felt the longer, the better for him,” Brown said.
Gronkowski’s last race was a 1 1/4-length score on March 30 at Newscastle. After changing owners, and continents, the namesake of Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski is working on an accelerated timeline going into a high-profile race in which he attempts to thwart Justify’s bid for the 13th Triple Crown in history.
“I had the opportunity to train him a couple of weeks before I worked him. I could have squeezed three breezes in, but I just didn’t feel the horse was completely acclimated over here yet, so I went with caution and did two works,” Brown said. “I wanted to make sure he was ready to work, and he was. Based on what I see, he looks pretty fit. There’s some unknowns – he did miss some time – and coming off a layoff going a mile-and-a-half, that’s about as tough of a task as you can ask a horse to do. But he’s a high-quality horse, so maybe he’s good enough to do it.”
The SayJay Racing, Greg Hall and Brooke Hubbard-owned Blended Citizen, winner of the Grade 3 Peter Pan on May 12, breezed a commanding five furlongs in 1:00.64 over the Belmont Park main track just before the first race on Saturday afternoon, his final serious move before his anticipated start in Saturday’s 150th running of the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes.
The two-time Grade 3 winner took to the track alongside a pony at 12:45 p.m. in a special time reserved for the Doug O’Neill trainee.
Under jockey Mike Luzzi, the Proud Citizen colt began from the half-mile pole and ran the first eighth of a mile in 12.65 seconds and the quarter in 24.25, hitting the wire in 47.93, before finishing in 1:00.64 under the wire. NYRA clockers caught Blended Citizen galloping out six furlongs in 1:17.58. The smooth-moving colt did all the work, said Luzzi.
“He covers a lot of ground. He’s a Cadillac,” Luzzi said. “Obviously we know he likes the track. I wish the best of luck to them next week.”
Assistant trainer Leandro Mora, who has been with O’Neill for 17 ½ years, arrived at Belmont late Friday afternoon from California to oversee the workout, and was pleased with the style and ease the multiple graded-stakes winner offered.
“What I like is how easily he did it,” Mora said. “It was nice, I’m very pleased. He wasn’t even making noise going by. I like how he went past the wire. That’s when you know you have a legit horse. I like what I saw.”
The afternoon workout is a tactic that O’Neill has used before, notably saddling Reddam Racing’s then-undefeated colt Nyquist for a public workout at Santa Anita Park for his final breeze before he won the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by a half-length.
“We don’t school horses like some trainers,” said Mora. “If we work a horse prior or between races, or before the first race, we do it like a race, so they think they went through it, but they didn’t go through the hassle. They come back to the barn, they’ve gone through the workout, and it’s a whole psychological thing for them.”
Unplaced through three starts earlier in his career on dirt, the half-brother to Lookin At Lee was switched to turf, where he broke his maiden in his fifth start at Del Mar. It took a while for the long-striding colt to get to his first Grade 1 start next Saturday.
“This is a late-developing horse,” Mora said. “He was just a slow learner. We tried him on dirt, we thought he was just no good on dirt. So Doug put him on the grass and he won. [The owners] talked to Doug, and he said if you want to make it to the Kentucky Derby, let’s do it like Animal Kingdom did. Run around synthetic, and try to qualify, and enjoy the Derby.
“Once we didn’t get in, the owners brought up the [July 7 Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational] on the grass. Doug said, ‘What about the Peter Pan?’ and the owners said, ‘Let’s go.”
Blended Citizen, who placed third in the El Camino Real Derby in February at Golden Gate Fields, returned to win the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park the following month, before running fifth in the Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland. Blended Citizen has earnings of $406,854, and will be ridden by jockey Kyle Frey, who has been aboard the colt for his last four starts.
Belmont-bound Tenfold works five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 at Churchill
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen had said he wanted Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Tenfold to work five-eighths of a mile in 1:02 or a couple of ticks faster ahead of Saturday’s Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, and that’s exactly what the Preakness third-place finisher did with a five-furlong work in 1:01 3/5 on a sun-soaked Saturday morning at Churchill Downs.
Churchill clockers timed Tenfold in splits of 12 3/5 seconds for the first eighth-mile, 25 1/5 for the first quarter-mile, 37 1/5 for three-eighths and 49 2/5 for the half-mile, then put in a strong gallop-out of 1:15 for three-quarters of a mile and 1:28 4/5 for seven-eighths under exercise rider Angel Garcia.
“I thought Tenfold worked really nicely today,” said Asmussen, who won the 2016 Belmont with Creator. “He gets over the racetrack well, and we’re obviously very excited about his chances in the Belmont. The horse is in a really nice rhythm right now. I feel he’s 100 percent and really like his state of mind going into this. Nothing but respect for the field, but I think he’ll represent well.
“He’s always been very talented. He’s a lightly raced horse. He’s had four lifetime races now. I think his Preakness solidified his quality. The fact that he has continued to train well since has a lot of people talking about him that weren’t before. He went into the Preakness the longest shot on the board [at 26-1], and I don’t think that will happen in the Belmont.”
Asked about how the pace might impact Tenfold, the Hall of Fame trainer said, “I think we’re set up really well for Tenfold to run his race. What everybody else does is their business.”
Among those watching were owner-breeder Ron Winchell and his family’s long-time racing and bloodstock manager David Fiske. The Winchell operation, started by Ron’s father, the late donut magnate Verne Winchell, has produced top-caliber racehorses for decades. But Tenfold’s third by a total of three-quarters of a length in the Preakness was the closest the family has come in a Triple Crown race.
Tenfold is a son of the Asmussen-trained two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, who lost the 2007 Belmont by a head to the filly Rags to Riches, and the broodmare Temptress, who is a daughter of the Winchell-campaigned Tapit, now one of the leading stallions in the world, who has sired three of the past four Belmont winners.
“We went into the Preakness the longest shot on the board,” Winchell said of his colt, who came into the middle leg of the Triple Crown off two wins at Oaklawn Park and a fifth in the Arkansas Derby. “We felt a lot more confident than what everybody else felt. So it was a little bit of a vindication of how we felt, and seeing the result. Turning for home, I thought he had a pretty good chance at winning. He obviously finished third, finished up well, made us very optimistic going into the Belmont. His breeding hopefully will come into play, being by Curlin and out of a Tapit mare. So, we’ll see how that works out.
“We’d love to be a spoiler,” he said of Justify’s bid to become American racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner. “Obviously we’d love to see a Triple Crown winner from the perspective of somebody who loves horse racing, but you have to earn those positions. Triple Crown races are something for me, growing up, we were always kind of chasing Derbys, chasing classic races and never able to get one. So what would it mean? It’s huge. It’s something I’ve chased my whole life.”
Justify gallops; Louisville owners thanking their lucky Starlight
Triple Crown hopeful Justify galloped 1 1/2 miles in relaxed fashion Saturday at Churchill Downs under exercise rider Humberto Gomez. Even though Tenfold was working at the same time during Churchill’s special 7:30-7:40 time slot for Belmont Stakes horses, most of the attention was on the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner’s routine training exercise.
Also on the track were Preakness runner Bravazo, who jogged two miles, and Grade 1 winner Free Drop Billy, who galloped.
“He went good again. Every day has been a good training day for us,” said assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes, overseeing the training of Justify and Bob Baffert’s other Churchill horses while the Hall of Fame trainer is in California. “He was full of energy. Very happy. He goes over the track very nice. It’s nice and quiet out there. It’s good for us to train like that. It makes it much easier for us when there are just a few horses out there. He’s looking good. Today was his normal training. We didn’t do much [Friday] and came off a walk day and a jog day, so I expected him to be pretty happy. He was his professional self today.”
Barnes said Gary and Mary West’s Belmont contender Restoring Hope, who went out after Justify, also galloped 1 1/2 miles under Gomez. “Doing good, very good,” he said.
Both horses are scheduled to work Monday and fly to New York Wednesday.
Having Justify at Churchill Downs has been a thrill for the members of Starlight Racing who live in Louisville. Starlight owns 15 percent of Justify, whose other owners are WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and Head of Plains Partners. Until Justify, the last time a Louisville resident owned the Derby winner was H.C. Applegate with Old Rosebud in 1914. The Louisville owners frequently show up to watch Justify train, thanking their lucky Starlight for involvement with a horse going for the Triple Crown.
“Right now, I feel like I’m still in a dream, that it’s not actually happening,” said Starlight member Anita Cauley. “God keeps rolling them out one after another. So, fingers crossed. People will say, ‘Oh you’re going to do it.’ I’m like, ‘Don’t say anything out loud.’ It’s hard to do. Any of these races are hard to get. But to try to get all three, whew.”
Ted Nixon and his 90-year-old father, Bo, got involved because Bo was so interested in his daughter-in-law’s fillies with the all-women StarLadies Racing. Mary Nixon told her husband that he and Bo should invest with the regular Starlight Racing group, founded by Louisvillian Jack Wolf.
Bo Nixon grew up on Long Island, has been a fan for 80 years and struck gold with his first horses. Bo and Ted are 5 for 5 as owners, with Starlight buying into Audible before he won the Florida Derby and in Justify after his maiden victory. While Bo didn’t go to Baltimore, he will be returning to his old roots for the Belmont.
“To be able to have a horse in a position to win the Triple Crown at the Belmont is nothing we ever dreamed of but is certainly a thrill of a lifetime,” said Ted Nixon. “We finally decide to buy into some horses and we lock into Justify and Audible. Dad is thrilled. At 90 years old, he’s heading up to the Belmont and looking forward to being there. It’s the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup and the World Series all thrown into one.”
Another Starlight partner is Ed Glasscock, one of Louisville’s true power brokers and sportsmen, also being involved in the city’s Triple A baseball team and professional soccer franchise as well as a long-time horse owner. Glasscock’s son, Clint, was one of the Starlight partners that asked Wolf if they’d look into buying into a Derby prospect to go along with the yearlings they buy every year.
“Dream come true,” Ed Glasscock said. “Something very special that will never happen again, I’m sure.”
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