Sports

NORA PRINCIOTI

A tale of two Gronkowskis, and their day at the Belmont Stakes

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski meets Gronkowski the thoroughbred before the 150th Belmont Stakes.
Eclipse Sportswire
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski meets Gronkowski the thoroughbred before the 150th Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. — There aren’t many things that can turn a group of five Gronkowski boys dead silent, but when their horse — who’s named Gronkowski, too — came out dead last from the gate for the 150th Belmont Stakes on Saturday, their box in the owners’ section went quiet.

Gronkowski the horse was comically far behind as the pack ran down the backstretch but, going into the third turn, he turned on the gas. Jockey Jose Ortiz moved him inside and they crept up toward the front until they made the final turn trailing only Justify.

Eyes trained on the action, Rob Gronkowski was going nuts.

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“It’s in second,” he shrieked. “Faster! Faster! Come on!”

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The entire box was screaming. Inside it were Gronkowski and his brothers, his father Gordie, a few buddies and sponsorship partners, his girlfriend Camille Kostek, and a group from Phoenix Thoroughbreds, a racing group that’s the majority owner of Gronkowski the horse, who finished a surprising second to Justify.

By the way the group reacted, you’d think it was them, not Justify, who’d just won the Triple Crown.

“At first I was like, ‘Dang, we’re in last place by like 15 yards,’ ” Rob Gronkowski said. “But I was like, ‘The race ain’t over, you know?’ And then he’s getting closer and closer and all of a sudden he is fourth, third, second, and I just started going ballistic.”

High-fives flew haphazardly all around. Everyone hugged and jumped up and down.

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“That was like a Patriots Super Bowl,” said Orlando Vargas, a friend of Gronkowski’s.

And then they all left. There was no getting down to the track to see the horse because of the swarm around Justify, so they skipped it. A car was waiting, so a conga line of Gronkowskis made its way down and out of Belmont Park and went back to Boston having taken the horse racing world by storm in the span of about three hours.

They’d rolled in at around 4 p.m., and settled into a far-back table in the Garden Terrace room for some hot dogs, cheese and crackers, and beer. After about an hour, they went out in front of the park for a TV interview and, eventually, to meet Gronkowski the horse.

It took three security guards to guide everyone downstairs. Gordie and Rob Gronkowski wanted a bathroom break, and Glenn and Chris Gronkowski got separated from the pack. Rob Gronkowski was swarmed by people constantly. He was amenable to photo and autograph requests until he was told he had to hurry up.

Rob fulfilled his TV obligations, then chatted with Jimmy Fallon in a roped-off area by the NBC set.

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He was having a good time, as usual. He laughed when a “J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets” chant broke out among the fans gathered to watch. He and his brothers waved at the crowd, pretending to be the Queen of England. “Happy 6/9! Happy 6/9,” they repeated, referencing the date as well as Gronkowski’s favorite number.

One young man in a pastel jacket and bowtie yelled something about going to Dirtbags, a bar near the University of Arizona, where Gronkowski went to school.

“Never been there,” Gronkowski shouted back in a way that said he definitely has been there. “Maybe one time.”

The crew shuffled down to the paddock to wait for Gronkowski the horse. On the way, they ran into Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, whom Phoenix Thoroughbreds CEO Amer Abdulaziz suggested Gronkowski should meet.

“Hey, you stiffed me at the ESPY’s one year,” Baffert joked.

The trainer posed for a picture with Gronkowski, then got one of the Patriots tight end with his 13-year-old son Bode.

Once the crew was at the paddock, they were joined by Chad Brown, the trainer who has been working with Gronkowski the horse for the last month. Gronkowski the human had a lot of questions: How big is the horse? Where is he? How does he look for the race?

“He’s ready,” Brown said. “He’s getting ready back in the locker room.”

Brown explained his race plan. He wanted another horse to challenge Justify, the heavy favorite, out of the gate to tire him out. That would give Gronkowski a shot down the stretch. The horse doesn’t have “explosive burst,” Brown said, but “he’s a grinder.”

“There’s probably so much that goes into this that we don’t even know,” Gronkowski said, pleased that there was a solid strategy in place.

Brown said they want the horse to have a good, long warm-up. Gronkowski suggested a good warm-up would be for him to ride the horse. He was rebuffed.

Justify, with jockey Mike Smith aboard (right), leave Gronkowski and jockey Jose Ortiz in their dust at the Belmont Stakes finish line.
Julio Cortez/Associated press
Justify, with jockey Mike Smith aboard (right), leave Gronkowski and jockey Jose Ortiz in their dust at the Belmont Stakes finish line.

Brown’s race plan only half came to fruition. There was no challenge to Justify early. They relied on Gronkowski’s stamina to come from behind, though, and the horse made up more ground than Brown thought possible. He finished 1¾ lengths behind Justify.

“I’m really proud of his effort,” Brown said after the race. “When he was that far back early I said to myself this is not going to end well.”

Still in the paddock, Rob Gronkowski was especially interested to learn that the jockeys bump into each other, hard, during races, though not as interested as he was when he learned that the horse Gronkowski can eat up to 100 pounds of food in a week.

At about 6:20 p.m., it was time to meet the horse. It became clear that the brothers Gronkowski had taken to calling the horse “Rob.” They greeted the big bay colt as such.

Gronkowski the horse was calm while Gronkowski the human petted him on the side of his neck while two jockeys put his saddle on. The meeting was brief, but they clearly connected.

“He was dope,” Gronkowski said afterward.

Trainer Bob Baffert (right) shakes hands with New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (left) prior to the running of the 150th Belmont Stakes. Baffert’s horse Justify wound up winning with Gronkowski’s namesake finishing second.
PETER FOLEY/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK
Trainer Bob Baffert (right) shakes hands with New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (left) prior to the running of the 150th Belmont Stakes. Baffert’s horse Justify wound up winning with Gronkowski’s namesake finishing second.

Gronkowski the horse took a walk around the paddock, then left for the track with his crew of supporters trailing. The Gronkowskis headed for the grandstand. On the way up, they ran into Bill Belichick and his girlfriend Linda Holliday, who were there rooting for Justify, who’s owned in part by a friend of theirs.

Gronkowski and Belichick said a brief hello. If there’s tension between them after rumors swirled Friday that Gronkowski was on the trading block, it didn’t show.

“That was fake news,” was Gronkowski’s take on the rumors.

They made their way up to the box just in time to catch the equine Gronkowski’s slow start. Just as soon as the horse’s fast finish raised their spirits (and lined their pockets, as each member of the Gronkowski clan had placed a $69 bet on the horse to place) they galloped off, on to their next adventure.

Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.