The Twin Spires at Churchill Downs - Coady Photography

The Twin Spires at Churchill Downs – Coady Photography

The Kentucky Derby could have some significant international flavor this year.

With two spots in the starting gate set aside for the top qualifiers from two groups of prep races in Japan and Europe, figuring out how the international contenders fit into the mix will be a challenge for handicappers. One of the names to keep an eye on is Gronkowski, who launched himself on to the Derby trail with a win in the Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes on March 7th in Great Britain.

Held at a mile over the synthetic track at Kempton Park, the race drew seven starters, though only Gronkowski seemed to attract any significant wagering support, starting as the heavy favorite. With jockey Jamie Spencer in the saddle, the Jeremy Noseda-trained colt was reserved at the back of the pack early on, but refused to settle down while fighting Spencer and soon unleashed a huge, eye-catching bid around the turn to sweep past the majority of his rivals and contend for the lead.

However, when Gronkowski reached the lengthy homestretch, it took him a little while to lengthen his stride, and a few other colts—mainly the late-running Court House—began to gain ground. With roughly a furlong to go, Gronkowski finally got going and accelerated away from the field, though he drifted toward the rail while doing so and briefly interfered with Court House, leading to an inquiry that ultimately resulted in no change to the order of finish.

Despite racing greenly, Gronkowski’s completed the mile in 1:37.74, a respectable time for a race without any run-up distance before the timer started. For his effort, he received a career-best 101 Racing Post Rating, and while that’s still lower than numbers achieved by some of the best young runners in Europe—Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I) winner Mendelssohn, also under consideration for the Derby, has earned a pair of 115s—Gronkowski has been improving with every start and clearly has talent.

Fortunately for handicappers, we’ll get to see how Gronkowski’s stacks up in North America prior to the Kentucky Derby. Jeremy Noseda currently plans to start Gronkowski in either the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland or the Wood Memorial (gr. II) at Aqueduct, which should give us a clear indication of how Gronkowski fits into the Kentucky Derby picture.

What did you think of Gronkowski’s performance?