All he knew Saturday evening, under a breezy, blue sky, was all he needed to know: As the lead pack entered the final turn at Pimlico Race Course, his job was to run down the front-runners — which he did with speed to spare, passing the favorites, Midnight Bourbon and Medina Spirit, for a 3½-length victory that made winners of jockey Flavien Prat and trainer Mike McCarthy in the first Preakness starts for each.
Midnight Bourbon finished second, followed by Medina Spirit, the Kentucky Derby champion whose subsequent positive test for a corticosteroid upended the narrative ahead of the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
And so, at least temporarily, the focus in the sport shifted from a ubiquitous and controversial white-haired trainer — Bob Baffert, who somehow was both absent and omnipresent Saturday — and toward a handsome, 3-year-old bay colt, Rombauer, who probably would have been sold last spring as a 2-year-old before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic canceled the sale.
“It just goes to show you,” said McCarthy, who choked up during both his NBC postrace interview and his news conference, “small players in this game can be successful, too.”
Earlier this spring, a “heated discussion” between McCarthy and John Fradkin, Rombauer’s owner, over whether to run the horse in the Kentucky Derby was won, naturally, by the owner. That decision was vindicated Saturday when Rombauer, an 11-1 underdog, came from sixth place at the half-mile pole and started passing rivals. The last two to get chased down were the favorites, Midnight Bourbon and Medina Spirit, both of whom ran in the Derby two weeks earlier.
“Down the backside, he was traveling well, and he was passing horses one by one,” said Prat, whose only other Triple Crown victory came in the 2019 Kentucky Derby, when the apparent winner, Maximum Security, was disqualified for interference and Country House, Prat’s ride, was named the victor. “We were behind some of the favorites, and I thought maybe if he gave me a good kick I might be able to run them down.”
Rather than gloating over the decision to hold Rombauer out of the Derby, Fradkin shrugged and explained it in analytical terms, saying he preferred the easier conditions of the Preakness — a shorter race with a smaller field — to the Derby. “I can understand why Michael wanted to run,” Fradkin said, “but I think he could understand why I didn’t want to run.”
“They make informed decisions, to say the least,” McCarthy said. “… I would’ve liked to have run the horse in the Kentucky Derby, [but] John made some valid points.”
After last year’s pandemic-altered race — contested without fans and five months later than usual, dropping it into the third slot of the Triple Crown — this year’s Preakness regained a large measure of normalcy. It was back in its regular slot on the calendar, on the third Saturday in May, and there were fans in the stands, though about a 10th of the usual crowd. Race organizers reported a record all-sources handle of $112.5 million — suggesting bettors, at least, were satisfied with the legitimacy of the racing.
But nothing made the Preakness feel more like the Preakness than the singular focus on Baffert, whose seven Preakness wins are tied for the most of all time. He is the sport’s biggest star and its biggest villain, his horses now having failed five drug tests in two years.
For the past six days, the sport had been consumed with the drama surrounding Baffert and Medina Spirit, whose positive test for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory drug that is a legal therapeutic but is not permitted to be in a horse’s system on race day.
In the ensuing chaos, Baffert was suspended by Churchill Downs; a second test on Medina Spirit’s sample, which will decide whether horse and trainer keep their Derby title, was ordered; and Medina Spirit was required to pass enhanced drug screening at Pimlico to get to the starting gate for the Preakness. It was only late Friday afternoon when word came that Medina Spirit had been cleared to compete.
The results from the Churchill Downs split sample aren’t expected to be known for several weeks, even as the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, is set for June 5.
Baffert’s response to the controversy became a controversy itself; he first denied Medina Spirit had been given the substance and implied he and the horse had been sabotaged, then later acknowledged Medina Spirit had been given an ointment to treat dermatitis that contained the substance. He watched the proceedings from his California home, making the unusual choice not to come to Baltimore — so, he said, he would not be a distraction.
“As I have stated from the beginning, there was never any attempt to game or cheat the system, and Medina Spirit earned his Kentucky Derby win,” Baffert said in a statement released by his attorney. The apparent presence of betamethasone at Churchill Downs, Baffert said, had “nothing to do with Medina Spirit’s hard-earned and deserved win. That win was the result of the horse’s tremendous heart and nothing else.”
On Saturday, one of horse racing’s biggest operations, Bob Baffert Racing Stables Inc., was taken down by one of its smallest. The Fradkins aren’t even in the game to race horses — they’re in it to breed and sell them. “In the past,” John Fradkin told BloodHorse, “we’ve pretty much only raced horses that we couldn’t sell.”
McCarthy, a longtime assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, was asked about his comments to NBC after the race about “small players” still having a place in horse racing and whether he intended it as pointed commentary on Baffert’s dominance of the sport and its news cycle. McCarthy wouldn’t take the bait. He praised the Fradkins. He reflected. He choked up again.
“You never know where a good horse is going to come from,” he said. “I’m glad this one ended up in our lap.”