Horse racing again mired in bad publicity? It’s Rombauer to the rescue

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Thank goodness for Rombauer!

You could almost hear the sigh of relief throughout Thoroughbred racing Saturday night. Rombauer had won the Preakness Stakes. Not Medina Spirit. Michael McCarthy was the winning trainer. Not Bob Baffert. The sport had a feel-good story to build on. Not three weeks of controversy and negativity leading up to the Belmont Stakes on June 5.

Born and raised at Machmer Hall in Bourbon County, bred and owned by John and Diane Fradkin, Rombauer roared down the Pimlico stretch Saturday past Midnight Bourbon and Medina Spirit to give the 50-year-old McCarthy his first win in a Triple Crown race, and jockey Flavien Prat his first true classic victory after being awarded the 2019 Kentucky Derby title aboard Country House through disqualification.

A son of Twirling Candy, Rombauer had raced just twice in 2021, winning the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on Feb. 13 — a win-and-you’re-in qualifier for the Preakness — before a third-place finish in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 3. John Fradkin, a former professional horseplayer, opted not to run the colt in the Kentucky Derby, pointing instead to the Preakness where the 11-1 shot paid $25.60 to win.

Ordinarily, the racing world would have released a collective groan when the Kentucky Derby winner failed to keep a Triple Crown bid alive heading into the Belmont. Not this year. Not with this trainer. Not under these circumstances.

Not after Medina Spirit now famously tested positive for betamethasone after the Kentucky Derby, throwing his victory into question and further battering Baffert’s reputation. At last report, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is awaiting results of a split sample lab test. The original postrace sample is the fifth failed drug test by a Baffert-trained horse in a little over a year.

That’s far too many with far too many excuses coming from the 68-year-old trainer who recently set the American record for Grade 1 victories. Baffert’s latest is that he nor his barn knew that Otomax, the ointment applied to Medina Spirit for a skin condition, contained betamethasone. That might be excusable were it not for the trainer’s previous positives. Numbers matter.

Critics will point to Medina Spirit’s third-place finish Saturday, and Concert Tour’s ninth-place showing in a field of 10, as proof positive fishiness happened in Louisville. I’m not buying the Preakness results as a confirmation argument, however. Medina Spirit’s surprise Derby win had more to do with the pace scenario and jockey John Velazquez’s brilliant ride than 21 picograms of betamethasone.

Still, rules are rules. You can argue the rules are too stringent. You can argue lesser-known trainers have committed drug violations and suffered suspensions, too. Doesn’t matter. Baffert is the face of the sport. He promised last year to be more attentive to his barn’s happenings. He’d run a tighter ship, he said. Failing to read a product label doesn’t fit the definition of tighter ship.

And had Medina Spirit won Saturday, all of this would have remained in the headlines heading into the Belmont Stakes in New York, you know, the media capital of the world. But he didn’t win. Rombauer rolled.

“Now we can get back to racing and we need that,” McCarthy said afterward. “This sport takes a lot of hits but days like today are what make it great.”

Pimlico sets Preakness Day handle record

He’s apparently not alone. Despite on-site attendance being limited to 10,000, despite all the controversy and bad publicity, Saturday’s racing set a Pimlico record all-sources handle of $112.5 million. Bettors are still paying attention.

Actually, Saturday had plenty of examples of the sport’s greatness: The 93-year-old Alex Campbell in the winner’s circle after his homebred Mean Mary won the Gallorette; the emotion in McCarthy’s voice after winning the race, saying he wished only that his family had been on hand to witness the triumph; the Facebook video of the folks at Machmer Hall popping open a bottle of champagne Saturday night.

No Triple Crown bid this year, but that’s OK.

Thank goodness for Rombauer, indeed.

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