Rombauer won the 146th Preakness Stakes. Photo by Cynthia Longo.

That sound you heard around 7:00 p.m. on Saturday night? 

That was the huge sigh of relief from so many in the Thoroughbred racing community, when Medina Spirit finished a well-beaten third in the Preakness Stakes, and the easy-to-root-for Michael McCarthy’s Rombauer took the second leg of this year’s Triple Crown, giving the trainer his first Classic winner.

The former assistant to Todd Pletcher bested his mentor and his mentor’s mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, both of whom had runners in the race, defeating three Hall of Fame trainers, including Bob Baffert, whose positive Kentucky Derby test was the storyline of the day, until, blessedly, it wasn’t, giving the sport a reprieve from the ugliness of the last week, offering instead something to celebrate.

Rombauer had never won on dirt, his two victories coming over synthetic and grass surfaces. His owners, John and Diane Radkin, had never won a graded stakes race. His jockey, Flavien Prat, had never been the first under the wire in a Classic, though he had won the Kentucky Derby via DQ aboard Country House. 

And as they emotionally celebrated a win that the sport badly needed, they seized the moment to remind us of just what, and who, it takes to get there.

In the moments immediately following the race, Prat thanked Rombauer’s groom and the woman who ponied Rombauer. John Radkin acknowledged not only the people who had played a hand in his second-generation homebred’s development, but also “all the people who didn’t help with this horse, but who helped with my education in the horse business,” his wife Diane adding names when her husband was too overwhelmed to remember. He also thanked Rombauer’s dam, the unraced Cashmere, a horse he also bred. 

An emotional McCarthy regretted that his family couldn’t be with him and acknowledged Pletcher, who was quick to congratulate his former assistant.

“Everything we do sort of channels through what we did when I worked there,” said McCarthy. “I always refer to something he would do. It’s strange to believe that I’ve won {a race] that he hasn’t.”  

As he did in the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit went to the lead, joined in the first quarter of a mile by Midnight Bourbon. Coming down the stretch, it looked like a two-horse race. But as the leaders battled each other, Rombauer and Prat got to the outside to run them down, Medina Spirit faltering to finish third, Midnight Bourbon hanging on for second.

“Coming to the quarter-pole, I started to get a little excited,” said McCarthy. “At the eighth pole, it was like an out-of-body experience.” 

“I can’t even believe I’m doing this,” said John Fradkin. “I’m not sure this is really happening. It might be a dream.” 

It was almost certainly a dream come true for those in the industry envisioning what would have once been unthinkable: the nightmare scenario of a Triple Crown bid in three weeks at Belmont Park.

That sideshow averted, the sport and its fans could take a deep breath on a perfect Baltimore afternoon, and so could the bettors who took a shot with Rombauer, who paid $25.60 and topped an exacta that returned $49.30 for a dollar.

Rombauer now owns three wins from seven starts. The winner’s share of the $1 million purse gives him $890,500 in career earnings.

Early in the NBC broadcast, McCarthy, Lukas, and Pletcher stood in the old Pimlico grandstand for an interview. Lukas has won the Preakness six times, and while Pletcher has yet to hoist the Woodlawn Vase, there was no denying that McCarthy, despite a number of Grade 1 wins on his résumé, was being portrayed as something of a little brother with his more accomplished siblings.

Undaunted by their achievements, he quipped as the interview ended, “Keep an eye on me.” 

On Saturday evening, that eye was a grateful one, for a trainer, owners, and a horse that did their part to save a sport from itself.