by NYRA Press Office
Trainer Chad Brown said it's all systems go for Phoenix Thoroughbred III's Gronkowski one day before the Lonhro colt looks to thwart Justify's Triple Crown bid in Saturday's Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.
"Everything is good. His training is done now," Brown said. "We've asked him to work twice and I thought he worked real well. I think we put him in good position to give a good account of himself if he's fit enough and can stay the mile and a half. All week, I've been impressed with this horse."
Gronkowski drew post 6 in the 10-horse field and is 12-1 on the morning line. The equine Gronkowski is expected to meet his namesake, New England Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, Saturday afternoon.
"Hopefully if they named it after me, it's just a beast of a horse, it's fast and it's ready to roll," Gronkowski told Sports Illustrated's Monday Morning Quarterback.
Gronkowski (the horse) will be making his North American debut after posting four wins and a runner-up finish in six starts racing exclusively in England.
Brown, a native of Mechanicville, New York, is a Patriots fan and said Rob Gronkowski's visit to Belmont Park can be good for the sport.
"Anytime we can bring some positive publicity to this great sport we work in, it's a great thing," Brown said. "I really hope this horse has success tomorrow because I think it can be a great thing all around. To meet one of the all-time great tight ends is exciting for me and is a nice little perk."
Brown said all three of his runners in Thursday's Grade 3, $200,000 Wonder Again came out of the race in good order. Significant Form and Mighty Scarlett ran second and third, respectively, behind winner La Signare, while Altea was fifth in the 1 1/8-mile stakes on the inner turf on the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival's Opening Day.
Significant Form, who finished one length behind La Signare, and Mighty Scarlett could both be targeting the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational on Saturday, July 7 during Stars & Stripes Day, Brown said.
"We were disappointed we didn't win the race with one of them, but they all seemed to come out of the race well so now we'll take some time to figure out our next move. The Oaks is definitely a possibility for them, and we'll get something easier for Altea. She didn't run bad, but she really needed to make an impact in the top three to earn her spot. I think she fell just short of that."
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Belmont contender Tenfold puts Asmussen in good spot
For the first time this week, Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen was on hand Friday morning to check on his Belmont Stakes contender Tenfold, and came away pleased with how the Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred is progressing into Saturday's race.
Third by less than a length to Justify in the Grade 1 Preakness May 19 at Pimlico Race Course, beaten a neck for second by fellow Belmont contender Bravazo, Tenfold jogged once Friday around Belmont Park's one-mile training track.
It was a quieter morning for Tenfold than Thursday, when he galloped approximately 1 ¼ miles and visited the starting gate. He will walk on Saturday morning, typical of all Asmussen horses on a race day.
"He's a beautiful horse. He's got a great frame, a really nice way of going," said Asmussen, who arrived in New York Thursday afternoon to see 2-year-old filly Lady Apple run second in the $150,000 Astoria.
"Being here at the races yesterday it was a little concerning because the racetrack was pretty dry. As big as he is, hopefully the racetrack is a little tighter for Saturday afternoon," he said, "but he's coming into it in very good physical shape."
Asmussen won the 2016 Belmont with Creator. Tenfold's sire is Curlin, the two-time Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer trained by Asmussen that ran second to filly Rags to Riches in 2007.
Tenfold will break from post position 7 of 10 in the Belmont under jockey Ricardo Santana Jr., who was aboard for the Preakness as well as debut and allowance victories over the winter at Oaklawn Park. Victor Espinoza rode Tenfold to a fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby April 14.
Bob Baffert-trained Justify drew post 1 in his quest to become racing's 13th Triple Crown champion. WinStar Farm is a co-owner of Justify as well as Grade 2 Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy, who will break from post 9, while Mike Repole shares an ownership stake in both Noble Indy and Grade 2 Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso in post 8. Noble Indy and Vino Rosso are both trained by Todd Pletcher.
"It's kind of a hard race to figure out because of common training interests and common ownership interests as far as exactly what everybody's going to do with the ability they do have," Asmussen said. "With that in mind, just hopefully he's away from the gates cleanly, gets into a nice big rhythm and is capable of running a mile and a half race at this level."
In addition to Tenfold, Asmussen will also send out Charles Fipke homebred Bee Jersey in the 125th running of the Grade 1, $1.2 million Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap earlier on Saturday's card. Bee Jersey takes a three-race win streak into the Met Mile, all at eight furlongs in front-running fashion, the most recent a 5 ½-length romp in the Grade 3 Steve Sexton Mile May 6 at Lone Star Park.
Santana will ride Bee Jersey from Post 10 of 11 in the Met Mile.
"He is a beautiful individual. He's another successful horse out of the Fipke's breeding program that I think has drawn extremely well in the Met Mile and has a ton of ability," Asmussen said. "I feel very good about the draw that he has. He's been very quick away from the gate. The one-turn mile, Ricardo knows him well, and he can let as much of him out as he feels is necessary."
While Asmussen has won the Belmont previously, he will be seeking his first victory in the prestigious Met Mile.
"The horses are doing really well physically and if it's meant to be, it'll happen," he said.
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Can Baffert's 'other' Belmont Stakes horse play Triple Crown spoiler?
Restoring Hope, trainer Bob Baffert's other entry in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, has been called a speed horse, a promising colt capable of setting a pace that could be helpful in stablemate Justify's bid to become the 13th Triple Crown winner on Saturday.
On Friday, though, Baffert said Restoring Hope fits in as well as any other horse in the field of 10 for the Belmont, and he expects his "other horse" to come up with a strong effort.
"I expect Restoring Hope to run a big race, too,'' said Baffert, who has won the Belmont twice before with Point Given (2001) and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah (2015). "Restoring Hope is training really well. And he's well-bred to go 1 ½ miles."
Owned by Gary and Mary West, Restoring Hope is a son of 2000 European Horse of the Year Giant's Causeway, out of Symbol of Freedom by Tapit, who has sired three of the last four Belmont Stakes winners.
Despite a 12th-place finish in the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile in the slop at Churchill Downs on May 5, Baffert believed early on the colt was Derby worthy. Prior to that race, he ran second in his first two starts, and then broke his maiden on February 2 and finished third in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 7.
"I really thought he was going to be in the Kentucky Derby,'' said Baffert. "He showed me that kind of talent. I think he's just as good as any of the horses in there."
Florent Geroux will be aboard for the first time.
Baffert said Restoring Hope will run without blinkers.
"We think he'll run better without them. He was getting a little aggressive,'' said Baffert.
As for the chances of his own horse spoiling his bid for a second Triple Crown, Baffert said: "The owners, they'd love to knock off Justify. That's why we're in the game."
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Pletcher primed for big day at Belmont (and elsewhere)
At 8:06 p.m. on Saturday, whether or not the Todd Pletcher-trained Vino Rosso or Noble Indy successfully thwarts Justify's bid to become racing's next Triple Crown winner in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, Pletcher will be back in the paddock at Belmont Park to saddle Hyndford and Autostrade in the day's 13th and final event, a 1 1/16-mile allowance race.
"That's one of my favorite things to do - run in races after the Derby, after the Preakness, after the Belmont," he deadpanned. "We ran in the race after the Derby. We were sitting there, just all soaking wet, and the horse [Regal Quality] decided to completely mail it in ... it was a fitting end to the day."
Vino Rosso and Noble Indy are just two of the 10 stakes horses Pletcher will be saddling Saturday at Belmont Park, not to mention Hyndford and Autostrade, and several others running at Gulfstream Park, Woodbine and Laurel Park.
"Weekends like this, when you have a lot running in one place, there's a lot of logistics involved," said Pletcher, a seven-time Eclipse Award winner whose horses have earned more than $360 million since his first winner, Majestic Number, collected $10,800 for a maiden win on January 26, 1996 at Gulfstream Park. "Sometimes you have to have all hands on deck, and have extra help ready to go."
While the 50-year-old Pletcher is quick to praise his staff, it's the trainer's work ethic and meticulous attention to detail that keeps his far-flung operation running smoothly. The day before Vino Rosso and Noble Indy were to run in the final and most demanding leg of racing's Triple Crown, with his horses competing for more than $5.4 million in purses, Pletcher was just as able to provide a quick update on Saturday's final race as he was on his two Belmont charges.
"They're both doing great," he said. And Hyndford?
"I think he will appreciate more distance, eventually," he said. "He's an honest sort who always shows up and gives you a good effort."
"We are interested to see how he handles the stretch out to 1 1/16 miles," Pletcher said of Autostrade. "We are hopeful he does it swimmingly."
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Belmont is 'opportunity to show what Hofburg can do'
As the support for Justify reaches a fevered pitch in advance of tomorrow's Belmont Stakes, a faint beating of the drum can be heard in the distance for the likely second choice in the wagering, Hofburg. And it's growing louder.
The lightly raced son of Tapit, whose progeny has won three of the last four editions of the Belmont, is the least experienced runner in the field, but he has been getting better with every start. Thrown to the wolves in the Grade 1 Florida Derby with just a maiden win to his credit, Hofburg rallied well to finish second behind Audible at odds of 8-1.
There was considerable buzz surrounding him heading into the Kentucky Derby, but he never got a chance to prove whether or not the hype was warranted. After being stymied in traffic around the far turn and at the head of the lane, the Juddmonte Farms color-bearer finished fastest of all through the stretch, offering his proponents a glimpse of the ability they'd been touting.
Tomorrow, his backers should get a fair chance to see how good he really is, as he continues to signal his readiness for the task, according to his Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.
"We had a good morning training all the way around," said Mott. "He seems to still be going around the racetrack good. You just hope that you're dealing with a horse that's genetically capable of dealing with the mile and a half. I think we have that."
Mott's illustrious career has spanned decades, with a dizzying number of accolades, but the veteran horseman admits he still feels the intensity of gearing up for a Triple Crown race.
"We maybe put a little bit of pressure on ourselves, but that's because we're anxious to run and anxious to win," he said. "You don't want to make any mistakes. You get on edge with every move because you don't want to make a mistake. You know once you get him over there, there's nothing you can do. You turn him over to the rider and you race. We can't ride him.
"Our job is to get him there safely, in one piece, and feeling good," he added. "That's why we get uptight. For me, it's not about winning or losing, it's getting him there to give him an opportunity to show what he can do. If I get butterflies or get on edge, it's worrying about screwing something up."
Hofburg's growing fan base will also have butterflies Saturday, but they should know leaving the far turn whether or not their Belmont darling will be in with a chance. Contrary to popular belief, it has historically not been advantageous to be a deep closer in the 1 ½-mile race, and ideally, Mott would like his charge to be within a few lengths at the quarter pole.
"I don't want to give him too much to do through the stretch," the trainer said. "[Hofburg's jockey] Irad [Ortiz, Jr.] and I will talk tomorrow morning. We're drawn in the middle. I like our post position, but you never know until they open the gates."
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Co-owner of Blended Citizen optimistic about his colt's chances
Blended Citizen has a tall order in his first Grade 1 assignment - taking on Triple Crown hopeful Justify in a field of 10 3-year-olds in Saturday's Belmont.
Stephen Young of SAYJAY Racing, a part owner of the Grade 3 Peter Pan winner, says he's happy to have the colt and that trainer Doug O'Neill has gotten him to this point.
"We're lucky to have him," Young said. "We have a budget of $100,000, and the only reason we got him is because he was a really late foal. It took him a while to mature, and Doug was real good, and as patient as he could be with him.
"When he and Leandro [assistant trainer Leandro Mora] put the blinkers on him, he got a little bit better then got a little bit better on his own after that. He's going to be competitive I think. I mean, Justify might get a 48 opening quarter, and he might be sitting back there 15 lengths behind after the race, but you have to run and find out."
A son of Proud Citizen, Blended Citizen is coming off a 1 ½ length victory in the May 12 Peter Pan. SAYJAY co-owns the colt with Greg Hall, whom Young met through his family-operated Allen Company, a recycling business, and Brooke Hubbard, his racing manager and bloodstock agent. The colt drew post 10 and is listed at 15-1 on the morning line.
The off-the-pace running Blended Citizen is a multiple graded stakes winner who debuted on dirt, switched to grass then progressed through two starts on synthetic by winning the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park. After debuting with blinkers in that victory, the colt finished fifth in the Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland behind eventual Grade 1 Kentucky Derby runner-up Good Magic.
The Kentucky-bred was an $85,000 purchase at the OBS March sale of 2-year-olds in training. He brings a long stride - which he used to his advantage in the Peter Pan - a style that has to be used early according to jockey Kyle Frey.
Young and the rest of his partners are confident, but a race like the "Test of the Champion" leaves a lot to ponder.
"He's competitive when he has somebody in front of him, then he runs hard," said Young, referring to the colt's Peter Pan victory. "Now, if he's good enough to get these guys or not on Saturday, I don't have any idea. I'm a pretty good handicapper, and I can't even tell. If I could, I'd win a couple million bucks here.
"It takes so much to get the horse right to the race, and this horse is pretty sound. My only thing is the company he's faced in the past may not be this good. We're up there with the big boys right now. He didn't get a good taste of Good Magic in the Blue Grass, but he didn't have a very good race. He kind of clipped heels a very little bit in the beginning, and then at the end the guy came out in front of him and made him stop. I don't think he would get Good Magic that day, but he might have run second. This race tomorrow is a little further, and I think he wants further. I think we can get a little lucky tomorrow."
Blended Citizen could become the eighth starter to win both the Peter Pan and Belmont Stakes, joining Counterpoint (1951), Gallant Man (1957), Cavan (1958), Coastal (1979), Danzig Connection (1986), A.P. Indy (1992), and Tonalist (2014).
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Grade 1 winner Free Drop Billy 'a live long shot' in Belmont: Romans
He's never had a horse deny a Triple Crown bid, but Dale Romans is the only trainer in Saturday's Grade 1 Belmont Stakes with a victory over a Triple Crown champion.
And while Albaugh Family Stables' Free Drop Billy is given little chance to beat Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Justify in the Belmont, listed at 30-1 on the morning line, Romans knows that odds don't tell the whole story.
Keen Ice was 16-1 when he upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers at Saratoga Race Course, the only defeat the most recent Triple Crown winner suffered during his 3-year-old season. Keen Ice ran third to Pharoah in the Belmont, one of four career show finishes for Romans in the 1 ½-mile "Test of the Champion."
"[Justify] has to beat himself. We all know it. I think that he's the best horse, but he might not be able to go a mile and a half. He might go too fast early. A lot of things can happen," Romans said. "We've seen a lot of horses come in here that looked like there was no way they could lose, and get beat.
"It's good to be here. It's a showcase, but we're here to beat him," he added. "We're a long shot, but I think we're a live long shot. There are a lot of reasons to be here, including you've got to make him earn it. It's not worth it if he doesn't earn it."
For the second straight day since arriving Wednesday afternoon from Kentucky, Free Drop Billy galloped 1 ½ miles over Belmont's main track on a muggy Friday morning under exercise rider Juan Segundo. On the way back to the barn, horse and rider had a solitary tour of the paddock.
"I thought he went good. We'll see how he does. It looked like he was bouncing over the track and he was full of himself," Romans said. "He sweats a lot, but he's not nervous. He's like Shackleford that way. There's a difference between nervous sweat and regulating your body temperature. We'd be worried if he didn't sweat."
Free Drop Billy, housed two barns from Justify on the Belmont backstretch, trailed the Triple Crown candidate - and the hordes of cameras and photographers that record his every move - on the horse path during their walk to the track.
"He gets all the TV cameras and we get the iPhones," Romans quipped. "But they take a nice picture."
Free Drop Billy is a chestnut son of 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags out of the Giant's Causeway mare Trensa. His half-brother, Hawkbill, won the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic in March, contested at 1 ½ miles on the turf.
"We're the only other Grade 1 winner. With the exception of a couple races, he's been right there every time, with good horses," Romans said. "He's got the pedigree for [the Belmont]. He actually, I think, has the best distance pedigree. That's what we're going to try to hang our hat on."
Steeped in and respectful of racing's storied past, Romans was surprised when told that this year's Belmont features a statistical anomaly - all eight trainers in the race have won at least one Triple Crown event. Romans' came with Shackleford in the 2011 Preakness.
"That's interesting. I did not know that. All [eight] of us, huh? That's pretty cool," he said. "I'm glad I'm not the one that didn't."
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La Signare could be targeting G1 Belmont Oaks Invitational
Trainer Brian Lynch was 0-for-16 during the Belmont spring/summer meet before saddling winners in two straight races to close the Opening Day of the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival on Thursday.
The French-bred La Signare wired a nine-horse field to win the Grade 3 Wonder Again and Emmy Performance broke her maiden in the day's finale. Lynch said both fillies were in good order on Friday morning.
"They both seemed very happy this morning, so good news there," Lynch said. "Both came out of the races well."
In her first start since running second in her first U.S. start on April 11 at Keeneland, La Signare set early fractions of 26.36 seconds for a quarter-mile and 50.95 for the half on the firm inner turf, handling the stretch out to 1 1/8 miles with aplomb. Lynch said she is now a possibility to run in the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational on July 7 at 1 ¼ miles.
"I just think off the two-month layoff, for her to run like she did yesterday, particularly the way she finished, that I think she's going to come on that much more," Lynch said. "If she's able to dictate the terms, she's a bit like Heart to Heart. If you leave her alone long enough, she's hard to catch.
"The question mark will be the mile and a quarter. She's a big filly and doesn't take a lot of training. She stays fit off the smell of a race track, so it's not as if we have to be grinding a heavy-duty work into her. I think she's going to move forward fitness-wise a lot off the race she got yesterday."
Emmy Performance broke her maiden at second asking, winning at one mile on the Widener turf. The Point of Entry filly is a half-sister to stablemate Oscar Performance, winner of last year's Grade 1 Secretariat, Grade 1 Belmont Derby and Grade 3 Pennine Ridge.
Lynch said Emmy Performance could be targeting the Grade 2, $300,000 Lake Placid on August 18 at Saratoga Race Course.
"She can be a little difficult of a filly to train, she has her little way of doing things," Lynch said. "She has that hot blood. But when you put her in the gate, she's very professional. The further she runs, you'll see her develop."
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Take Charge Paula returns in Sunday's Jersey Girl
Peter Deutsch's Take Charge Paula will make her first start since the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, leading a field of seven in the $150,000 Jersey Girl for 3-year-old fillies on Sunday at Belmont Park.
By Take Charge Indy, Take Charge Paula has two wins and a second at the Jersey's Girl's six-furlong distance, including a 3 ½-length Grade 3 score in Gulfstream Park's Forward Gal to begin her sophomore season. She earned her spot in the Oaks with back-to-back Grade 2 placings at a mile and 1 1/16 miles, before fading quickly 1 1/8-mile "Run for the Lilies" on May 4 at Churchill Downs.
The Kiaran McLaughlin trainee has been tabbed as the 8-5 morning-line favorite. She will be ridden from post 6 by Paco Lopez.
Take Charge Paula will be joined by Leonard C. Green's Sower (7-2), looking to maintain her perfect record in two previous starts for trainer Linda Rice; Joe Sharp-trained Devine Mischief (3-1), exiting a frontrunning, 1 ¾-length optional claiming victory; Buy Sell Hold (8-1), third last time out in the Grade 3 Miss Preakness for Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen; John Kimmel-trained Pacific Gale (15-1) making her first start of the year; and a pair from the Rudy Rodriguez barn in Zayat Stable's homebred Lezendary (9-2), who boasts a field-best 85 Beyer Speed Figure for her Cicada win this winter, and two-time stakes winner Strategic Dreams (12-1).