Inaugural European Road to the Kentucky Derby culminates in logical Gronkowski

Apr 02, 2018 Kellie Reilly/

When Churchill Downs officials announced last August the creation of a “European Road to the Kentucky Derby,” the opening of another avenue was simultaneously adventurous and uncertain. What kind of horse might ultimately score the most points in the seven-race series and advance to the Run for the Roses?

After the concluding race, the Burradon S. at Newcastle this past Friday, we have the answer: a well-regarded Kentucky-bred bought for a princely sum at auction, by connections eager to pursue the Kentucky Derby, representing a trainer who’s already had success in America, and named after New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

In other words, the equine Gronkowski ended up being a logical outcome for the European Road. As a progressive type with a chance to handle dirt, or in trainer Jeremy Noseda’s view, even improve on it, the Phoenix Thoroughbred runner likely would have tried an American points race if this European opportunity didn’t exist.

Gronkowski was heavily favored in the Burradon thanks to his perfect record on all-weather surfaces, including a victory in a previous scoring race on the European Road, the March 7 Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions S. at Kempton. Although he wouldn’t win many style points next time in the Burradon, the big bruiser gradually imposed his will and looked stronger the farther he went down the straight mile, beating better rivals than he’d encountered so far.

The Burradon promised to be decisive with its 30-point bonanza to the winner, who would accordingly top the European leaderboard and receive the invitation as Europe’s representative. But since Gronkowski was the only Triple Crown nominee in the field, any other victor would have given rise to various possibilities. Would a non-nominated winner accept the invitation? If so, he’d have to pay $200,000 to supplement in order to run in the Kentucky Derby.

Gronkowski slammed the door on the alternative hypotheses and kept it pleasingly simple. Scoring the Burradon’s 30 points, plus the 20 he earned as the winner at Kempton, he easily ranked as the top scorer with a total of 50 points on the European leaderboard.

Another positive for the European Road is its previous points leader, the Aidan O’Brien-trained Mendelssohn. The $3 million half-brother to Beholder captured the penultimate scoring race, the March 9 Patton S. at Dundalk. Mendelssohn scored 20 points, the same as Gronkowski had two days earlier at Kempton. But the tiebreak, non-restricted stakes earnings, was all in favor of Mendelssohn thanks to his windfall as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) winner.

Instead of seeking to clinch the European invitation, Mendelssohn ventured to the UAE Derby (G2) on Dubai World Cup night, a scoring race on the main points leaderboard, and crushed the competition. Romping by 18 1/2 lengths while obliterating the track record, he earned his spot in the Kentucky Derby by an established route.

As expected, the European Road took on greater clarity, and relevance for the Kentucky Derby, once the series progressed from its four-race sequence on the turf last fall to the all-weather in March. By winning two of the three scoring races last month, Gronkowski reserved his ticket to Churchill Downs – and a Kentucky homecoming – for the first Saturday in May.

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