Michael McCarthy leaned on the fence outside the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course. The trainer finished a Preakness Week 2021 television interview, took a break from his insistent phone and replied to a question about his runner Rombauer with a simple, “We can go see him if you want.”
And then McCarthy played host inside the barn.
Hip turned toward the stall door and wearing a light sheet on a chilly morning, Rombauer really wasn’t interested in visitors until his trainer started talking.
“Don’t turn your back on him,” McCarthy warned as Rombauer arrived up front and took on the dual roles of cute horse and man-eating dragon. Lightly made with a white triangle high on his forehead and a bad-haircut tail, Rombauer bared his teeth, opened his jaws, tried to take a nip. Then he played nice, and looked for a mint or some other offering. Soon he went back to harassment. He’d have taken a notebook into the stall, chewed a pen if given half a chance, definitely would have bitten the horse walking in the shedrow. But Rombauer also pricked his ears to say hello and acted as if he could pluck a cookie from a kindergartner’s hand if someone expected it of him. “That’s him,” McCarthy said. “He doesn’t have the look of a classic prospect. He’s a little bit lighter made, medium-sized, but he’s got wonderful mechanics and his best weapon might be in here [with a tap between the bay colt’s eyes]. Right from the beginning, everything about him was pretty easy. He shipped a whole bunch of places, ran on different surfaces, went to different venues. Nothing bothered him.”
Add Pimlico, the Preakness Stakes-G1, nine rivals and the scrutiny of what felt like half the world to the list of things that didn’t bother Rombauer. Owned and bred by Californians John and Diane Fradkin, the son of Twirling Candy handled it all in Baltimore – capped by a 3 1⁄2-length score over Midnight Bourbon with disputed Kentucky Derby-G1 winner Medina Spirit third May 15. Rombauer rated in sixth early for jockey Flavien Prat, eased to fourth on the turn and devoured the leaders when given a cue in the stretch. The winner covered 1 3/16 miles in 1:53.62, sixth fastest in stakes history. McCarthy watched it unfold from the outdoor horsemen’s boxes just upstairs from the finish line. Alone in a small sea of people, in a dark suit, a white shirt and a burgundy tie, he barely reacted.
“Watching live, going back to the Jumbotron, when he hit the front, I don’t think I said a word,” he said. “I certainly didn’t root, at least I don’t think I did. Just kind of watched the horse in a rhythm, him and Flavien. Stunned is pretty – stunned, not totally surprised I guess. I don’t know if that makes any sense. The horse had been touting himself here all week. His last two works were very, very good.”
Alone at a table in the post-race press conference room in the Pimlico infield, McCarthy thought about those two works, that in-the-stretch rhythm, the people who work for him, a training career that couldn’t get over 100 starts (or a dozen wins) in its first three seasons, the dues paid during a decade with trainer Todd Pletcher and time with trainer Ben Cecil, growing up within listening distance of Santa Anita’s race calls, contracting Covid-19 last year, missing wife Erin and daughter Stella back home in California, all of it.
Winning a Preakness, in his first attempt, a few years after winning a Breeders’ Cup race, at his first Breeders’ Cup as a trainer, would make anybody try to sum up what it took to get there.
Like his horse, McCarthy came through in the clutch and found the words.
“Just super proud of the effort that everybody has put forth that’s not here today, that’s back in Barn 59 at Santa Anita,” he said. “We’ll get home and celebrate this with them. A lot of teamwork today. Probably the biggest part of my team, my family, my wife and my daughter. It would have been nice to have them here today. . . I can’t tell you the support I get from them. My wife was up at 3 this morning California time helping me out, doing some things. This trophy is as much my family’s as it is mine.”
Topsy Turvy Week
A $1,000 yearling and a $35,000 2-year-old purchase, Medina Spirit upset the Derby at 12-1 May 1, giving trainer Bob Baffert a record seventh win in the country’s most prestigious Thoroughbred race. The Preakness came next for Zedan Racing Stables’ colt, potentially Baffert’s third Triple Crown winner in seven years.
And then everything went up in betamethasone.
Eight days after the Derby, Baffert spoke at a press conference outside his barn at Churchill Downs. Medina Spirit’s post-race drug test came back above the limit for the therapeutic medication. The trainer said Medina Spirit had “never” been treated with betamethasone, an injectable corticosteroid used to decrease inflammation in horses’ joints and an ingredient in some topical creams and ointments.
Any resolution awaited the results of a split-sample test and an official ruling from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, but Baffert appeared on Fox News, the Dan Patrick Show and other national platforms while speaking of cancel culture, injustice and regulators who “don’t use common sense.”
Baffert’s fifth medication violation in 13 months followed overages for phenylbutazone (twice), dextrorphan and betamethasone (champion Gamine was disqualified from third in last year’s Kentucky Oaks-G1) in addition to two lidocaine positives in Arkansas where the racing commission overturned disqualifications but fined the trainer $10,000.
Two days after the press conference at Churchill, Baffert issued a statement saying that Medina Spirit had been treated with an anti-fungal cream containing betamethasone for skin disease that developed after the April 3 Santa Anita Derby-G1. Churchill Downs suspended Baffert from entering horses. The Maryland Jockey Club delayed the Preakness entry process by a day, before working out an agreement on special pre-race testing and monitoring of Baffert’s horses.
Preakness starters Medina Spirit and Concert Tour plus two other weekend runners passed those tests, and were permitted to run, though Baffert did not attend, claiming he didn’t want to be a distraction (the cable TV tour be damned).
By Preakness Day, another Baffert statement asked to keep the focus on Medina Spirit and the sport. And so it went for racing, already battered by federally indicted trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis, spectatorless events during the Covid-19 pandemic and the uncertainty of the Horse Racing Integrity Act to nationalize medication rules and other regulation starting in 2022. A positive test in the Derby, for the first time since Dancer’s Image in 1968? Add it to the list.
Medina Spirit’s Preakness defeat, a hard-trying third after setting a pressured pace, for the moment threw cold water on the madness of an industry trying to right itself. A Derby winner who tested above the limit for betamethasone was one thing. A Triple Crown bid would have been something altogether different.
Like many, McCarthy felt the stress.
“It takes a lot to get to a race like the Kentucky Derby and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to get to the Derby, win the Derby and have this dropped in your lap,” he said before the Preakness. “It’s a challenge for the connections, but it’s also a challenge for everybody here. It’s supposed to be one of our biggest weekends in the game and something like this had to pop up. There are a lot of people who have put in a lot of sweat equity to get here and hopefully not all is lost on that.”
Whether he knew it or not, Rombauer came through for everybody’s sweat (and equity). And it almost didn’t happen.
Foaled at Machmer Hall in Kentucky, Rombauer went to Florida horseman Eddie Woods for early lessons. The plan was to sell the colt, out of Fradkin homebred Cashmere, as a 2-year-old. Several months in, Woods wasn’t optimistic. Covid fouled up the sales schedule in Florida. He didn’t think waiting until late June for the rescheduled Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale in Maryland (if it was even going to happen) made much sense. Perhaps Rombauer could race for the Fradkins and McCarthy. If he won an early start, he’d be an ideal candidate to sell privately.
“He wasn’t the typical good-enough horse to take to a 2-year-old sale because the 2-year-old sales were all messed up,” said Woods after selling the top two lots at the Timonium sale four days after the Preakness. “If he’d have gone to the April sale, he’d have worked an ordinary work and not gotten much attention, and he’s not a May physical. He’d have brought $25,000 to $30,000.”
So off to California he went.
Rombauer’s half-brother Cono won his second start for the Fradkins. Another half-brother, Treasure Trove, won his debut after selling for $10,000 as a 2-year-old.
“It is an early family . . . the family has a history of winning early,” said John Fradkin. “I thought it was a pretty good plan, so we did ship him to Michael and got him going. I’ve got to tell you the first reports weren’t positive. I was hearing he had no speed, and that’s really not what you want to hear when you want to win early with a 2-year-old.”
McCarthy aimed for turf, and distance, and Rombauer won his debut going a mile at Del Mar July 25. He paid $35.40, but purchase offers didn’t exactly flood the inbox. Sixth in the Del Mar Juvenile Turf Stakes Sept. 7, Rombauer showed the first sign of real quality with a fast-closing second in the American Pharoah Stakes-G1, his first start on dirt, at Santa Anita Sept. 26. He was 26-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-G1 at Keeneland in November, and rallied from 11th early to finish fifth.
Rombauer won his 3-year-old debut with a wild come-from-behind charge in the El Camino Real Derby, going 1 1⁄8 miles on the synthetic track at Golden Gate Fields Feb. 13. The victory came with a free entry to the Preakness and 10 Kentucky Derby points. McCarthy was thinking Derby, and sent Rombauer to the Blue Grass Stakes-G2 at Keeneland April 3. He finished third behind Essential Quality and Highly Motivated, adding another 20 to the points total.
McCarthy wanted to run on the first Saturday in May. The Fradkins weren’t so sure.
“I was bullish on running the horse in the Kentucky Derby,” said the trainer. “I had mentioned it a couple of times to John and Diane. They seemed to think that this was the better route. I thought he’d get a wonderful setup, tons of pace in there. I thought it would be over a racetrack that he would really like. Usually on Derby Day, Churchill Downs is hard and fast, and I think that’s what this horse has kind of been wanting all along.”
John Fradkin handicapped the prospects of running a closer who may or may not be better on turf in the 20-horse rodeo of the Kentucky Derby, and told his trainer the Preakness was the better option.
“We had a pretty heated discussion about that, let’s just leave it at that,” the owner said. “You know, I can understand why Michael wanted him to run, but I think he can understand why I didn’t want him to run.
“I thought if we ran in the Derby he would run his best race ever, but he would just get hot and dirty and not win any money. I feel like he’s a stakes horse and if he’s going to run his best race ever, you want him earning some money. I thought he had a much better chance here.”
So they skipped the Derby.
With six weeks between the Blue Grass and the Preakness, Rombauer went to work at Santa Anita and thrived. He breezed a half-mile in :48.20 April 16 and then fired three consecutive 5-furlong moves in 59 seconds and change, the last coming May 8. McCarthy wasn’t planning to leave any oats in the tub.
“You’ve got a fresh horse and you’d hate to think you led one over that wasn’t ready to run, that was maybe a work short,” he said Wednesday while dodging Rombauer’s teeth. “He’s trained well, he’s sharp. He seems like he’s coming into it the right way.”
Rombauer arrived at Pimlico after a flight from California and a Brook Ledge van ride from the airport Tuesday. A Thursday gallop – with a joyful lead change at the top of the stretch – signaled his readiness.
McCarthy felt his horse could have been a little bit closer to the early pace in the El Camino Real Derby, and would have preferred he be a bit farther back in the early stages of the Blue Grass. The ideal Preakness setup would be some sort of happy medium.
“I’d like to see them scorch the earth the first half-mile,” the trainer said. “I’d like to see the horse get away from there cleanly, find himself in a good spot going up the backside and hope every horse is doing as well as they can possibly be doing and let him run his race. Hopefully it’s good enough.”
Medina Spirit wired the Derby field, without feeling much pressure until the stretch. He wasn’t going to surprise anyone this time. Concert Tour liked to race up front too. Midnight Bourbon got bumped leaving the gate in the Derby and lost his opportunity to be forward. The Preakness might be different. As different as burgoo and crabcakes.
Medina Spirit broke like a Quarter Horse from post three, putting a quick length on Keepmeinmind to the inside as John Velazquez hustled the favorite to the lead. Two stalls to the right, Midnight Bourbon and Irad Ortiz Jr. matched the move and advanced to the leader’s girth as the field passed the finish line the first time. Concert Tour was third and wide, followed by headstrong Japanese runner France Go de Ina just outside Crowded Trade. Rombauer raced in sixth, between Ram on the rail and Risk Taking, with Keepmeinmind and Unbridled Honor at the back through a quarter-mile in :23.77. Still pressured by Midnight Bourbon, Medina Spirit reached a half-mile in :46.93 and led up the backside. Approaching the far turn, France Go de Ina moved to third and applied a little pressure to the leader’s inside as Concert Tour retreated. Rombauer was fifth and in touch.
“The hole card for this horse is his stamina and his smarts,” McCarthy said. “He has both of those. He will, I think, run as far as they write races. But he has no quit in him. All he knows to do is just run, and he lays it down every time.”
Prat went between Concert Tour and France Go de Ina after 6 furlongs in 1:10.97 and moved to third. Midnight Bourbon, called “an Adonis” by his trainer Steve Asmussen earlier in the day, glided up to challenge Medina Spirit for real near the end of the turn and Velazquez had to ask his horse to respond. The Derby winner fought back, but was no match as Ortiz and Midnight Bourbon cruised to the front at the quarter pole.
They would soon get company. Rombauer responded to Prat’s left-handed reminder coming off the turn, filling the bridle and going after the new leader as Medina Spirit weakened. Rombauer came out from behind Midnight Bourbon after a mile in 1:34.78, powered past at the eighth pole and drew off in the final yards. Midnight Bourbon stayed for second, 2 lengths clear of Medina Spirit as Keepmeinmind checked in fourth.
McCarthy watched it unfold with the typical trainer’s mix of apprehension and, ultimately, appreciation.
“Turning up the backside, I was a little concerned,” he said. “He’s usually a little bit farther back than that. It’s kind of reminiscent of the Preakness here, laying a little bit closer to the lead. Coming through the half-mile pole, it looked like the horse was still traveling well . . . looked at the horses behind us, didn’t see anybody posing a threat behind us. Two horses in the lead obviously carried each other through the quarter pole. When we wheeled out coming to the three-sixteenths pole the head of the lane, I started to get excited.”
Down on the track, Prat was seeing and feeling the same things.
“Never intended to rush him,” the jockey said. “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, and then . . . I was behind two – some of the favorites in the race – and I was traveling well, and I thought, well, maybe if he switched out and gave me a good kick, I might be able to run them down.”
Prat won the 2019 Kentucky Derby with Country House via the disqualification of Maximum Security, but had never crossed the finish line first in a Triple Crown race.
He celebrated with a satisfied pump of his right fist, a big slap on his mount’s neck, two long “Woooh” shouts and a galloping-out high five with Ortiz as Rombauer geared down.
“Well, of course it’s a lot different when you cross the wire first,” Prat said. “You get that feeling where it’s a lot of joy.”
There was plenty, even if Rombauer briefly defied McCarthy’s mid-week nod to the horse’s brainpower and composure just before the race.
Saddled in Pimlico’s indoor paddock, like all but France Go de Ina and Keepmeinmind, Rombauer spilled his wine on the turf course saddling area – jigging in tight circles while eyeballing Midnight Bourbon. Groom Leonel Orantes Aguilar earned his paycheck after McCarthy legged up Prat as Rombauer served up a few light bucks, a forward jump or two and some sideways twists and turns before joining the lead pony.
The (mis)behavior went away in the post parade, and really wasn’t a factor – though his trainer laughed about it afterward.
“I looked like a bit of a liar when he got out there on the grass,” McCarthy said outside the stakes barn Saturday night. “He was pretty sharp.”
Don’t turn your back on him.