Rombauer wins 2021 Preakness Stakes, ending Medina Spirit’s Triple Crown bid after week dominated by controversy

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BALTIMORE — Rombauer charged past the two favorites to capture the 146th running of the Preakness Stakes, ending a tumultuous run up to the middle jewel of the Triple Crown at Pimlico Race Course.

Jockey Flavien Prat guided the 11-1 shot past Midnight Bourbon and a facing Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit in the stretch.

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 Kentucky Derby winner 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 prerace 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.

Trainer Steve Asmussen, who won the Preakness in 2007 with Curlin and 2009 with Rachel Alexandra, said he was “giddy” over his colt’s chances. Midnight Bourbon started poorly in the Derby and could not make up enough ground, but his powerful build and expressive personality attracted admirers beyond Asmussen.

Then there was Baffert’s other entry, Concert Tour, who skipped the Derby and the attendant controversy altogether after he ran a flat third in the Arkansas Derby. Baffert and owner Gary West liked Concert Tour’s training form enough to take their shot in the Preakness, and his sublime quickness made him a threat to snatch the early lead from Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon.

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.