Originally based in England with trainer Jeremy Noseda, Gronkowski topped the European points leaderboard by winning two of the final three scoring races. The Phoenix Thoroughbred runner served notice in the March 7 Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions S. at Kempton, then clinched the invitation to Churchill Downs in the March 30 Burradon S. at Newcastle. In anticipation of his Derby bid, his namesake – New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski – bought a share of the colt.
A fever due to a slight infection prevented Gronkowski from shipping to Louisville, prompting connections to regroup and point for the Belmont. To that end, he was transferred to trainer Chad Brown in early May.
Gronkowski had questions to answer going into the Belmont, his first start on dirt, beyond a mile, and at this level of competition. His less than ideal preparation was another complicating factor. After missing some time to recover fully from his illness, he posted two encouraging works over the track, but Brown would have preferred having one more. Trying a 1 1/2-mile classic off a 71-day break is difficult, especially for a horse tackling several new things at once.
The fact that Gronkowski could break slowly, race last behind Justify’s uncontested pace, and close strongly enough to loom a possible threat, suggests that he’s a proper dirt horse. That’s exactly the kind of performer the European Road is designed to promote. Brown is now looking ahead to the August 25 Travers (G1) at Saratoga, with a prep to be named later.
We’ll also be hearing a lot more from the most accomplished competitor on this year’s European Road, Mendelssohn, who’s in line for a three-race American campaign culminating in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs.
The Aidan O’Brien trainee had scored in the other March points race, the Patton S. at Dundalk in Ireland, but his ambitions lay beyond the European leaderboard. Mendelssohn traveled to Dubai for the March 31 UAE Derby (G2) and aced his dirt test, earning his Kentucky Derby ticket in a 170-point race on the main leaderboard. Unfortunately, the half-brother to Beholder was not able to deliver his best in the slop at Churchill Downs. Enduring a rough trip after breaking a beat slow, Mendelssohn was protected by jockey Ryan Moore once his race was over, and he was eased across the wire in last.
Mendelssohn deserves more opportunities to do himself justice on the American dirt, and O’Brien has mapped out a program. As revealed to attheraces.com, Mendelssohn is likely to ship to Belmont Park for the July 7 Dwyer (G3). Then he’ll freshen up for the September 22 Pennsylvania Derby (G1) at Parx, his stepping stone to the November 3 Breeders’ Cup Classic. If not exactly a Derby do-over, the Classic may offer a rematch with Justify over the same track and trip. Let’s hope for a follow-up clash between the two sons of Scat Daddy.
Finally, the European Road also showcased a few European classic winners. Although they were never candidates for the Kentucky Derby, their subsequent success underscores the depth of last fall’s points races on turf.
Saxon Warrior, hero of the Beresford (G2) and Racing Post Trophy (G1), kicked off 2018 with a victory in Newmarket’s 2000 Guineas (G1). After sparking hopes of becoming the first English Triple Crown winner in 48 years, Saxon Warrior lost his perfect record when a lackluster fourth in the June 2 Derby (G1) at Epsom. The third-placer in the Epsom Derby, Roaring Lion, was also seen on the European Road last season, landing the Royal Lodge (G2) and just missing to Saxon Warrior in the Racing Post Trophy.
Epsom Derby hero Masar had competed in the lone French points race, the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (G1), where he checked in third on unsuitably soft going. (He later wound up an unlucky sixth behind Mendelssohn in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf [G1]). The victorious filly, Happily, has finished third in both of her classic appearances in the English and Irish 1000 Guineas (G1). Lagardere runner-up Olmedo went on to garner the French 2000 Guineas (G1).
Even Gronkowski’s Burradon S. yielded a classic winner, admittedly a less significant one, as the sixth-placer Nyaleti dominated the German 1000 Guineas (G2).
With that cast of characters, the first European Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifies as a success. What might the encore bring?
Belmont Stakes finish courtesy of Photos by Z
Gronkowski in Burradon courtesy of Newcastle Racecourse
Mendelssohn in Dubai courtesy of Coady Photography