Trainer Michael McCarthy had never saddled a horse for a Triple Crown race, but if his Preakness day was going to end with a celebration, he had a clear idea how it would look.
Rombauer, an afterthought in a week dominated by talk of doping and disqualifications, would surge by the other contenders with a hard move in the stretch.
That’s exactly what happened at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday as the 12-1 shot roared past favorites Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon to win by 3 ½ lengths. His big outside move gave McCarthy and jockey Flavien Prat defining victories in their Preakness debuts.
“It was like an out-of-body experience,” McCarthy said afterward, his voice breaking with emotion.
His former boss, Todd Pletcher, who has never won the Preakness, stopped by to offer congratulations. “It’s strange to believe I’ve won something he hasn’t,” the 50-year-old McCarthy said, putting an exclamation point on a surreal experience.
The moment was equally hard to fathom for owner John Fradkin, who began his odyssey as an amateur handicapper and small-time owner in the 1990s. He and his wife, Diane, bred Rombauer from a dam named Cashmere, whom they also bred.
“I’m not sure this is actually happening,” John Fradkin said. “It might be a dream.”
He and McCarthy had a “heated” disagreement about whether to run Rombauer in the May 1 Kentucky Derby, with the trainer bullish on the idea and the owner convinced his horse would not hit the board. Fradkin won, and they waited for the Preakness.
“We probably would have done the same thing two weeks ago,” McCarthy said. “But I’m glad we got it done today.”
Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon broke well and dueled at the front for much of the race.
“I had to come out running and get my position,” said Medina Spirit’s jockey, John Velazquez, who used the same approach to lead the Kentucky Derby wire to wire. “I knew he was going to be pressed today and was hoping he wouldn’t overdo it — he did.”
Velazquez said Medina Spirit never stopped fighting, but he knew the race was lost when Rombauer pulled up on his outside.
“My horse ran great; he just got beat,” Midnight Bourbon’s jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr., said. Rombauer’s winning time of 1 minute, 53.62 seconds was one of the 10 fastest in history.
Rombauer paid $25.60 on a $2 bet to win, $10 on a $2 bet to place and $5.20 on a $2 bet to show. Midnight Bourbon paid $4.60 and $3. Medina Spirit paid $2.80. Saturday’s 14-race card generated a record betting handle of $112,504,509.
Any expectations for a typical Preakness vanished last weekend when trainer Bob Baffert stepped in front of his barn at Churchill Downs and announced that Medina Spirit had tested positive for the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone. If a split-sample test confirms the result, he will likely become just the second Derby winner to have his title stripped because of a medication violation.
Just like that, Medina Spirit transformed from charming upstart to centerpiece of an all-time doping controversy in a sport that’s contended with more than its share of scandal.
The potential disqualification cast a harsh spotlight on Baffert, the biggest star in modern racing and most successful trainer in Triple Crown series history. He was already under fire for a string of violations involving champions such as Justify, Gamine and Charlatan. Though Baffert had successfully appealed penalties in some of those cases, the prospect of having a Derby win overturned pushed debates over his legacy to new extremes.
On a more practical level, it was not clear until Tuesday afternoon whether Preakness organizers would allow Medina Spirit to race. They ultimately did, citing Baffert’s right to due process, but his Preakness entrants, Medina Spirit and Concert Tour, had to pass three pre-race drug tests.
Baffert did not attend the Preakness and explained his absence in a statement provided by his attorney. W. Craig Robertson III: “As Medina Spirit prepares to run in the Preakness Stakes today, I want to keep the focus on this amazing equine athlete and not me, which is the primary reason I will not personally be in attendance. I do not want to serve as a distraction to what has always been of paramount importance — the joy of this great sport and the horses that make it possible.”
He said there was “never any attempt to cheat the system” and that even if a split sample confirms the positive test “it would have nothing to do with Medina Spirit’s hard-earned and deserved win.” He noted that betamethasone is a commonly used medication outside of competition and disputed the characterization of Medina Spirit’s situation as a doping scandal.
Baffert added that he “could have better handled the initial announcement of this news” and that he reacted emotionally because “it truly was the biggest gut punch I had ever received and I was devastated.”
With this saga swirling, talk of the race itself took a back seat, but there was little evidence of the week’s tumult on a mellow Preakness day. The race returned to its familiar date on the third Saturday in May, and fans were back in limited numbers (10,000 compared to 131,256 at the last pre-pandemic Preakness in 2019). But there was no raging infield party and no threat of rainstorms to add anxiety to the proceedings.
Despite Baffert’s stellar record at Pimlico — five of his six previous Derby winners went on to take the Preakness — bettors favored sixth-place Derby finisher Midnight Bourbon for most of race day, until a late run of wagering sent Medina Spirit off as a 5-2 favorite.
The 10-horse field was light on Derby carry-overs, with Medina Spirit’s closest pursuers all skipping the second leg of the Triple Crown to focus on the Belmont Stakes or other lucrative races later on the calendar.
Through all the twists and turns of the last two weeks, no one other than McCarthy and the Fradkins gave much thought to Rombauer. He had finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes behind Derby favorite Essential Quality and Highly Motivated. Then, John Fradkin held the line and kept him out of the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Fradkin joked that the underestimating of Rombauer went back to his 2-year-old year, when McCarthy initially reported that he “had no speed.”
This did not prove to be true, and by the time Triple Crown season rolled around, McCarthy believed deeply in the colt’s intelligence and stamina. “All he knows to do is just run, and he lays it down every time,” he said.
Given Rombauer’s endurance, Fradkin said he and McCarthy will consider a run in the June 5 Belmont Stakes.
After so much talk about Baffert and what ails the sport, these first-time Preakness winners cast their big day as a triumph for the smaller figures in racing.
“That’s what our game is built on,” McCarthy said. “Just, you never know where a good horse is going to come from. I’m glad this one landed in our lap.”
Baltimore Sun Media reporter Katherine Fominykh contributed to this article.
146th Preakness Stakes
Pgm, Horse, Jockey, Win, Place, Show
6, Rombauer, Flavien Prat, $25.60, $10.00, $5.20
5, Midnight Bourbon, Irad Ortiz Jr., $4.60, $3.00
3, Medina Spirit, John R. Velazquez, $2.80
Triple Crown series
153rd BELMONT STAKES
Post time: 6:45 p.m.
TV: NBC (Chs. 11, 4; coverage begins at 4 p.m.)