A Saturday at the Belmont With Gronk

  • ‘Is my horse a guy?’ We tagged along as Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski flew in to watch his namesake horse run in the third jewel of Triple Crown. Turned out both the human and the horse were in their element (and Belichick was there too)

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 already been a long day for Rob and his crew by the time they landed in New York Saturday afternoon.

9 a.m.

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.

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.”

Before getting in the van to Belmont Park, Gronk desperately needs a break. The entourage kicks back in the Sheltair lobby, eating…