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A Saturday at the Belmont With Gronk


    ELMONT, N.Y. — Rob Gronkowski screamed wildly from his spot in an owner’s box as Justify and the pack of horses crossed the finish line of the 150th Belmont Stakes. But unlike the rest of the crowd of 90,000, he didn’t seem to care much about Justify’s rare Triple Crown feat. Gronk held up two fingers, then put his hands behind his head in a gesture of disbelief. “Second! Second?” he shouted, as if seeking confirmation that the racehorse named after him, of which he is a minority owner, actually did just finish second at the Belmont, the third jewel of the Triple Crown. This after coming out of the gate dead last.

    From the sixth post, Gronkowski (the horse) got off to the worst start imaginable and Gronkowski the human’s cheers fell silent as he watched his racehorse fall 12 lengths off the back of the pack at the first turn—a distance that seemed much too far to make up. In fact, he was so far behind that he was hardly shown on the screen in the TV broadcast for the first half of the race, as the cameras cut tight shots to show the group in contention. As a Patriot, though, Gronk knows about big deficits—remember 28-3?—and he continued cheering for his namesake even though the distance seemed insurmountable.

    Maybe it was Gronk’s childlike belief that willed the horse’s comeback. One mile into the mile-and-a-half race, Gronkowski caught up with the back of the pack, and under the hand of jockey Jose Ortiz, started making a move on the inside. At the final turn, Ortiz cut his horse to the rail and surged into second, behind Justify, holding the spot to the finish. A horse that had never run in America, never run on dirt and never run this far finished 1¾ lengths behind an immortal Triple Crown winner.

    “At first I was like dang, we’re in last place by like fifteen yards!” Gronkowski said breathlessly, translating the race to football-speak moments after the finish. “But I was like, the race ain’t over, and then he’s getting closer and closer and all of sudden he is fourth, third, second, I just started going ballistic!

    “It’s never over until it’s over. He didn’t take first place, but he was super close, and for what his odds started at, 69-1, to get second place like that and barely lose—people made some money!”

    People made some money. Rob’s dad, brothers and pals who came with him to cheer on Team Gronkowski placed numerous $69 bets on his horse to place. Each of those wagers paid out to the tune of $1200.

    It was a great day at the races for the man and the horse, who finally had a meeting of the minds after a long-distance courtship. Gronk’s favorite part of the day was when he looked his horse straight in the eye before the race, man-to-man. Never mind the fact that a few hours earlier he wasn’t even sure if his horse was a male. “Wait, is my horse a guy?” Gronk asked his dad, Gordie.

    To be fair, it had been already been a long day for Rob and his crew by the time they landed in New York Saturday afternoon.

    9 a.m.

    Traveling to the Belmont in style.

    Traveling to the Belmont in style.

    Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated

    Rob, his dad, three of his four brothers (Gordie Jr., Dan and Glenn) and his college friend Orlando Vargas begin the day early with Gronk’s youth football camp in Woburn, Mass. After throwing the last pass at around 1 p.m., they quickly shower at Woburn High, change into their Belmont-finest—Rob donned a light pink button-down shirt—and hop on a private plane, courtesy of Sentient Jet, a sponsor of Gronkowski the racehorse. The 30-minute flight to JFK’s private runway passes—almost too quickly for Rob to squeeze in a much-needed nap, or even a solid pregame.


    3:00 p.m.

    Hitting the ground running.

    Hitting the ground running.

    Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated

    As Rob walks out onto the tarmac, he’s already thinking about the good vibes he plans to channel to his horse brother-from-another-mother that evening. The odds have improved from 69-1 a couple weeks ago to 12-1 at the start of the day (though they would drop throughout the day, and he would go off at 25-1). For race experts, the notion that this relatively unknown colt that had begun its racing career in England could win the Belmont Stakes is far-fetched, but Gronk isn’t afraid to dream. “If it wins, it is just going to be an unbelievable story,” he says.

    Gronk likens the horse’s anonymity—he’d only raced in England, for relatively low stakes, and only arrived the U.S. in mid-May—to the first time he played an NFL game in London in 2012. “It was kind of like the same thing—known about, but never been seen before,” he says. “I went to London and I dominated that game, we dominated that game as a team. This horse is coming from London now and playing its first game in the States, so hopefully that happens.”

    The Gronktourage arrives.

    The Gronktourage arrives.

    Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated

    Before getting in the van to Belmont Park, Gronk desperately needs a break. The entourage kicks back in the Sheltair lobby, eating popcorn and making coffee with the Keurig machine while Gronk disappears for at least 10 minutes. His girlfriend, Camille Kostek, arrives and wonders where he is. “Where do you think?” his brothers laugh. “The bathroom.”

    As the Sprinter van pulls out of the private terminal at JFK, Gordie Sr., also known as Big G, leads the group in a loud “LET’S GO GRONK!” chant. Vargas, who played football with Rob at Arizona yells, “It’s 6/9! Happy holidays!”

    4:00 p.m.

    A security team meets the black van carrying the Gronkowskis at the clubhouse gate, and Rob steps outside. Even in black sunglasses and a baseball cap, Gronk is unmistakable. Fans take notice.

    “He just walked by! Quick, give me your phone!”

    “Gronk, a photo with a firefighter? A photo with my son?”

    A royal wave.

    Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated

    Rob hardly needs a security team—the protection of being flanked by a pack of Gronkowskis and Vargas, all over six feet tall, is just as good. The group packs into a small and unsettlingly old elevator. Its operator glances at the maximum weight capacity, as if doing mental math on whether this mission to the fourth floor will succeed. “Have you ever been stuck in an elevator?” Big G asks. “I have for 45 minutes. It was real bad.”

    The elevator grinds slowly upward to the garden terrace restaurant. The doors open, and the operator breathes a sigh of relief. Two young waiters holding trays stop in their tracks as the giant Gronkowskis stride past. “Oh my god—look, it’s him!”

    4:15 p.m.

    The group settles in at a reserved table overlooking the track and gets to work on a tub of Coors Light. Tom Ludt, VP of equine operations for Phoenix Thoroughbreds, the investment group that owns Gronkowski the horse, rushes over to the table: “I know you guys just sat down, but the buffet will only be open for 10 more minutes.” This is a serious buffet emergency. “They’re pretty big guys—they need a lot of beef,” Ludt says with a laugh as the Gronks attack the buffet.

    4:45 p.m.

    Chad Brown, the horse’s trainer, stops by the table to meet him for the first time. Brown is a friend of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who is also in attendance today—as a Justify supporter. Rob gives Brown a message to deliver to his coach. “I can’t repeat it,” Brown says. “But I am going down to see Belichick again now to tell him.”

    “It’s a secret message,” Gronk says with a laugh. Could it be related to the reported tension between the star tight end and his coach, and his recent contract deliberations? Or just an insider tip on a certain horse?

    5:25 p.m.

    Gronk finishes a live NBC hit from the paddock. Once he’s off the air he stands behind a fence looking down on the fans walking below and sitting in the bleachers across from him. Gronk smiles down on his subjects and practices his royal wave, greeting fans with a “Happy 6/9!” and posing on his balcony for pictures like a prince lording over his kingdom.

    “That was so great!” he says to Camille as the fans start to clear out of the paddock to watch the next race.

    5:45 p.m.

    Rob hobnobs with other VIPs as he waits in the paddock to see his horse for the first time. He meets Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, and take a photo with Baffert’s young son, while his brothers and Vargas head inside to escape the sun and place their $69 bets.

    With Bob Baffert and son.

    With Bob Baffert and son.

    Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated

    6:15 p.m.

    A half-hour before post time, a series of loud neighs ring out from a stall in the paddock area. A normal sound here, except for the fact that the 10 racehorses running in the final leg of the Triple Crown have not yet arrived to parade around the paddock. Laughter punctuates the exaggerated whinnies, proving that the source is not in fact a horse. Standing tall in stall No. 6, Gronkowski (the human) shakes his head back and forth and sighs, flapping his lips the way a horse does. “Is this the noise a horse makes?” he jokingly asks Camille.

    Gronk then moves on to quizzing Ludt about more important questions. “Are we allowed to talk s— like they do at my games? Is trash talk an option? How many pounds of grain does this horse eat per day?”

    True colors.

    Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated

    A few minutes later, the equine Gronkowski arrives. He has a silky dark brown coat and is one of the largest horses in this race, up there in size with Justify. The handlers place the saddle and yellow and black No. 6 on Gronkowski’s back. Brown leads Gronk over to his horse for the long-awaited meeting. Rob nods up and down in approval as he strokes Gronkowski. “This horse is calm, really laid-back,” he says, a bit surprised at the horse’s demeanor, so unlike his own.

    Ortiz, who won the Belmont Stakes last year riding Tapwrit, walks over to meet Gronk, and the two pose for a comical photo opp: Ortiz is listed at 5’7″, 112 pounds; Gronk checks in at 6’6″, 265. Brown gives Ortiz a talk on race strategy, with detailed jargon that the uninitiated can only loosely translate as: Let another horse challenge Justify at the start to tire him out, then grind it out to the finish. Brown has only had a few weeks with this horse, and he truly doesn’t know what to expect. Ludt claps as Ortiz mounts up, but admits he doesn’t feel too confident: “I don’t know this horse well.”

    Gronk with jockey Jose Ortiz and trainer Chad Brown (right).

    Gronk with jockey Jose Ortiz and trainer Chad Brown (right).

    Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated

    The Belmont field of 10 parades around the paddock past the Gronktourage. “Wow—did you see Justify’s ass?” Big G says, in genuine appreciation of the magnificent Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. “It’s huge!”

    6:35 p.m.

    The security guards have about 10 minutes to escort the party to their seats in the owner’s box. Along the way, Rob runs into Belichick, and the two exchange pleasantries, without any visible sign of conflict. After his visit with Belichick, Gronk says that the previous day’s rumors of the Patriots looking to trade him were just “fake news.”

    The paddock.

    Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated

    When asked if he bet anything on Gronkowski today, Belichick laughs and answers by pointing to his Justify hat. That’s a hard no. Halfway to the owner’s box, another police officer joins the force to help escort Gronk quickly through the massive crowd and avoid any more requests for selfies. At this rate the group will not be in their section for post time. “Let’s just bulldoze through!” Gronk yells. The Gronkowskis line up and grab each other’s shoulders, Bunny Hop-style, to push through the sea of people making their way to their seats.

    6:46 p.m.

    They’re off!

    Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated

     

    And Gronkowski (6) immediately drops far back field ... 

    And Gronkowski (6) immediately drops far back field … 

    Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated

     

    By the quarter pole, he’s made up the ground, and Ortiz has positioned him on the inside, to challenge. 

    By the quarter pole, he’s made up the ground, and Ortiz has positioned him on the inside, to challenge. 

    Rob Tringali for Sports Illustrated

     

    Down the stretch, it’s Justify and Gronkowski ... 

    Down the stretch, it’s Justify and Gronkowski … 

    Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated

     

    Justify holds him off for the Triple Crown. 

    Justify holds him off for the Triple Crown. 

    Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated

     

    Gronkowkski hits the line in second. 

    Gronkowkski hits the line in second. 

    Mark Mravic/Sports Illustrated

     

    Jockeys exchange congratulations.

    Jockeys exchange congratulations.

    Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated

    Gronk and company jump into their open box just as the gates open. NBC cameras swarm the area to capture Gronk’s reaction as his horse starts off terribly. (Ludt says European horses typically start and run slower at start, so it’s often an issue for the first time the horse races in the United States.) Then he makes up ground for the surprise second-place finish. After the comeback, it’s high-fives and hugs all around. There’s no way they’ll be able to get down to the track today because of the Triple Crown hype, so they head for the exit. “That was like a Patriots Super Bowl!” Vargas yells.

    As he walks out, Gronk obsessively recounts the race, enthusiastically gesturing. “How much did we lose by?” he asks Vargas. “Not that much!”

    A group of what must be Jets fans catches sight of Gronk heading down the tunnel and yell, “SECOND SUCKS!”

    Brown, the trainer, might agree with that sentiment. He told Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden after the race, “We finished second. That’s a loss.”

    But for Rob Gronkowski, this was anything but. “We almost won! We almost won!” he shouted giddily as he left the park.

    And the horse heads back after a job well done.

    And the horse heads back after a job well done.

    Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated

    Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.



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