Michael McCarthy could have taken the swing of a lifetime two weeks ago.
The affable trainer had what most of his brethren spend their entire careers trying to attain – a 3-year-old colt who had earned a place in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby (G1). It would have been a milestone achievement, the first ever starter in the classic for McCarthy, but after conferring with owners John and Diana Fradkin, he opted to put his fervor aside and heed their pleas for patience.
So instead of sending Rombauer into the first leg of the Triple Crown, his team chose to let the other top sophomores beat themselves up a bit while they arrived at Pimlico Race Course this week for the $1 million Preakness Stakes (G1) with a fresh contender. In the stretch of the 1 3/16-miles test, with Kentucky Derby first-place finisher Medina Spirit growing weary and only Midnight Bourbon standing between him, Rombauer officially gave his owners the right to turn to their conditioner and say ‘Told you so’ in the best way.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m going to give most of the credit to John because I would have preferred to have run two weeks ago (in the Derby),” McCarthy conceded. “But we’re here, it’s in the history books, and we’re very proud of it.”
After six days of having the sport of the Thoroughbred racing in the headlines for reasons that made the industry’s stomach ache, Rombauer came through with a bit of a feel-good salve. The homebred son of Twirling Candy got the pace set up he needed to forge past Midnight Bourbon in the stretch and capture the 146th Preakness Stakes by 3 ½ lengths on May 15.
Beyond providing his trainer and owners their first classic victory, Rombauer also gave the industry some temporary relief from the elephant in the room that was sucking the air out of the sport. With news coming out last Sunday that Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit could be facing a disqualification from that effort after testing positive for the corticosteroid betamethasone, the main chatter coming into Saturday’s Preakness was how the integrity of the sport was hanging by the thinnest of threads.
A former assistant to Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, McCarthy has carved out a reputation rooted in principle since going out on his own in 2014. He has enjoyed big moments, most notably as the conditioner of City of Light, winner of the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and 2019 Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1). With few eyes on him Saturday, he got to soak in his brightest moment in the spotlight yet.
“I was bullish on running the horse in the Kentucky Derby. I had mentioned it a couple of times to John and Diane and they seemed to think that this was the better route,” McCarthy said. “You know, the Kentucky Derby is obviously the greatest two minutes in sports. Today I’m not sure how long it took us to get around there, but it was the greatest minute and 40 something seconds, 50 something seconds.
“I’m just…stunned. Not totally surprised, I guess. The horse had been touting himself here all week. His last two works were very, very good. Just very happy for the horse, very happy for (the owners). It worked out.”
Rombauer earned a free berth into the Preakness when he captured the El Camino Real Derby over the synthetic surface at Golden Gate Fields in his seasonal bow on Feb. 13, his first start since finishing fifth in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Keeneland last November. The bay colt earned enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby when he placed third in the April 3 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2), but he was well beaten that day by race winner and champion Essential Quality and runner-up Highly Motivated.
John Fradkin makes no bones about his desire to run his horse in the easiest spots possible and after what transpired in the Keeneland prep, he and his wife were steadfast that going on to Louisville would be a misstep.
“I didn’t think that the Kentucky Derby really suited him. I thought there was a pretty good chance we would not hit the board just because of his running style,” John Fradkin said. “So yeah, we did this against less competition, and I got lucky today.”
Sent off at 11-1 odds with Flavien Prat in the irons on Saturday, Rombauer raced between horses in sixth position in the 10-horse Preakness field while race favorite Medina Spirit was able to out foot Midnight Bourbon for the early lead and set fractions of :23.77 and :46.93. Midnight Bourbon pressed the issue along the backstretch and into the far turn and when he overtook Medina Spirit coming off the final turn, Rombauer was coming with his strong bid to the far outside.
“I had a great trip. We broke well. Never intended to rush him,” said Prat, who won the 2019 Kentucky Derby via disqualification aboard Country House. “Naturally down the backside he was traveling well and was passing horses one by one. So I was pretty confident going to the three-eighths pole. I was traveling well, and I thought, well, maybe if he switched it and give me a good kick, I might be able to run them down.”
Rombauer indeed kicked on, hitting the wire in 1:53.62 over a track rated fast.
Midnight Bourbon, the 3-1 second betting choice ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., held for place honors.
“Irad gave him a dream trip. When he went under the wire the first time, I was thinking, ‘Man, I wish the Derby would have looked like that.’ But he ran hard; he really did,” said Steve Asmussen, trainer of Midnight Bourbon. “You want to win them all and stuff. But I thought he ran extremely well. He showed up and he ran his race. Congratulations to the winner. But he took it to Medina Spirit.
Midnight Bourbon finished two lengths ahead of Medina Spirit, who faded to third. Trainer Bob Baffert was not in attendance for the race, having returned to California earlier in the week and going on whirlwind media tour on Monday.
“I knew he was going to be pressed today and I was hoping he wasn’t going to overdo it but he did,” said Hall of Famer John Velazquez, jockey of Medina Spirit. “By the quarter pole, the other horse put his head in front but he kept fighting. He didn’t stop he just got beat. He kept running he still finished third. Most horses at the quarter-pole like when they get passed they just give up and he kept running. You gotta give it to him.”
Bred in Kentucky by the Fradkins out of the Cowboy Cal mare Cashmare, Rombauer improved his record to three wins from seven career starts with $890,500. McCarthy indicated their intentions to run Rombauer in the June 5 Belmont Stakes (G1), the 1 ½-mile third jewel of the Triple Crown at Belmont Park.
“That’s what our game is built on. There’s so much that goes into getting to the races, let alone a race like the Preakness. The Fradkins have a small breeding operation. They’re passionate about it. They make informed decisions, to say the least,” McCarthy said. “They put a lot of time and effort into it. As John had told me one time: I have a lot more time to study this stuff than you do. He was right.
“But just you never know where a good horse is going to come from. I’m glad this one landed up in our lap. We’ll see where – I don’t think the journey is over.”