News about Rob Gronkowski buying into his namesake Kentucky Derby (G1) contender rightly grabbed all the headlines, but there are a couple of strictly racing-related updates for Gronkowski the horse.
Since our last article summing up the European Road to the Kentucky Derby, several of Gronkowski’s beaten rivals from the European Road finale, the March 30 Burradon S. at Newcastle, have returned to action this week at Newmarket. The results have been mixed, as you’d expect with runners switching surfaces, going from synthetic to turf. More to the point, the races during Newmarket’s “Craven Meeting,” so dubbed after the classic trial named the Craven (G3), come up very tough as well. This is the spot for a number of promising youngsters to return from their long holidays, making for deeper casts than you’d ever get on the all-weather over wintertime.
Gronkowski fans will point to the two encouraging results. The fourth-place finisher from the Burradon, Purser, came back to win a conditions race on Tuesday. He had only three rivals, but beat the most significant of them, odds-on favorite Symbolization. Considering that Symbolization is a Godolphin homebred, with entries in two classic races, from the red-hot yard of trainer Charlie Appleby, Purser did quite well to come out on top. Indeed, Purser performed better here than he did against Gronkowski. The conclusion must be that Purser needed that race, his first of the season, to bring him on for his Newmarket engagement.
The other positive came in a more significant race on Tuesday, the listed Feilden Stakes. Fortune’s Pearl, twice beaten by Gronkowski in scoring races on the European Road, finished a close second in the Feilden to a smart colt named Mildenberger.
But the rub here, as with Purser, is that Fortune’s Pearl simply turned in a far stronger effort at Newmarket. He did not race up to this level when third to Gronkowski in the March 7 Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions S. at Kempton, never mind when he was a subpar eighth in the Burradon. It was the opposite case for another Burradon alum in the Feilden: Dark Acclaim, third to Gronkowski last out, was beaten 10 lengths in fourth on Tuesday.
Two Burradon veterans turned up in another listed stakes, the European Free Handicap, on Wednesday. Another Batt finished third, and Great Prospector wound up seventh. Again, they reversed the order of finish from their prior meeting, when Great Prospector was fifth and Another Batt ninth behind Gronkowski.
The other Burradon runner to reappear, sixth-placer Nyaleti, disappointed once more when tiring to a worse sixth in Wednesday’s Nell Gwyn (G3). That’s a trial for the first British fillies’ classic, the 1000 Guineas (G1), so it was a much deeper event. Either Nyaleti hasn’t trained on from two to three, or she needs to shorten up to sprints.
All told, those Newmarket races suggest that although the Burradon featured a few solid horses, they didn’t finish in order of raw ability. Regardless of how you parse the Burradon form, it’s still light years apart from the competition served up by the major American preps.
That’s why it’s probably fair to sum up trainer Jeremy Noseda’s attitude as one more hopeful than confident. Gronkowski is being thrown into an entirely new situation on multiple fronts: his first career attempt on dirt, beyond a mile, and against the stiffest opposition he’s ever seen. If the all-weather form couldn’t serve as a guide even in head-to-head match-ups on the Newmarket turf, who knows what it means – if anything at all – for the dirt at Churchill Downs?
Connections obviously have a high regard for him, not just because they paid 300,000 guineas (approximately $404,145) for him as a two-year-old in training at Tattersalls, nor because they’re launching a bold assault on the Kentucky Derby. Gronkowski was originally made eligible for a couple of European classics too, and a horse of his ability, and resilient attitude, may be capable of boxing on a bit better than I imagine – if he takes to the dirt. Noseda has sprung a surprise on the dirt before, courtesy of 28-1 longshot Wilko in the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). Needless to say, this is a far taller order.
Gronkowski is scheduled to embark from his Newmarket headquarters on April 28, as Noseda reveals in this video courtesy of Tattersalls:
Phoenix principal Amer Abdulaziz discusses the relatively new stable’s first try at the Kentucky Derby:
There hasn’t been as much news emanating from the corner of the far better fancied European shipper, UAE Derby (G2) record-setter Mendelssohn, but that’s to be expected from Coolmore connections who keep things close to the vest.
Trainer Aidan O’Brien has commented that all’s well with the exciting half-brother to Beholder:
“He's in good form,” O’Brien reportedly said Monday. “Obviously he's had an easy couple of weeks and he came back (from Dubai) well.
“Everyone seems happy with him at the moment. In the next couple of weeks his work will be stepped up, but it's so far, so good.”
Such discretion is also why jockey Ryan Moore, expected by virtually the entire racing world to be aboard Mendelssohn, has yet to be officially confirmed. O’Brien holds a strong hand in a British classic staged the same day as the Kentucky Derby, the 2000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket, and Moore can’t ride in both the Derby and the Guineas. Any other year Moore’s services would be required at Newmarket, but Mendelssohn’s rise has changed the equation.
“I try to take one day at a time,” O’Brien said. “Hopefully we'll have runners in the two Guineas and hopefully Mendelssohn will go to America.
“We'll usually decide those things a week before, or when their serious work is over.”
Given that context, the presence of Moore in the saddle aboard Mendelssohn – rather than guiding any other O’Brien celebrity at Newmarket – could be read as a sign of connections’ confidence in a big effort at Churchill Downs.
Gronkowski photo courtesy of Newcastle Racecourse