Rombauer before the Preakness. Photo by Allison Janezic.

After a few hours of sleep, trainer Michael McCarthy was back at Pimlico Race Course Sunday morning, quietly talking about Rombauer’s emphatic victory in the 146th Preakness Stakes (G1) Saturday and looking ahead to the Belmont Stakes (G1).

Bred and raced by John and Diane Fradkin of Santa Ana, Calif., Rombauer rallied from off the pace in the second turn and passed tiring pacesetters Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon to win the Preakness by 3 ½ lengths. His time of 1:53.62 was the eighth-fastest since the race distance was changed to 1 3/16 miles in 1925.

While McCarthy, 50, acquired plenty of experience in Triple Crown races during his long tour as an assistant to Hall of Fame-elect trainer Todd Pletcher, Rombauer was his first starter in the series since he opened his own stable in 2014. The well-respected, low-key, California-based horseman started receiving congratulatory calls and texts as soon as the race was over.

“It’s been great,” McCarthy said. “It’s nice to see this all kind of come together. The horse justified what I thought of him all along.”

The Fradkins and McCarthy have decided to ship Rombauer to Belmont Park Monday and are seriously considering running him in the 1 ½-mile Belmont June 5.

“We will go ahead and go to Belmont,” McCarthy said. “We will get there and see how he is and where he is at and go from there.”

Not counting 2020 when the Preakness was the last of the Triple Crown races to be run because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rombauer is the seventh horse since 1980 to win the Preakness after skipping the Kentucky Derby (G1). Three of the six – Codex (1980), Aloma’s Ruler (1982), and Deputed Testamony (1983) – failed to win the Belmont Stakes. The other three – Red Bullet (2000), Rachel Alexandra (2009), Cloud Computing (2017) – did not enter the third leg of the Triple Crown. A total of 18 horses have completed the Preakness-Belmont double. Since the current Triple Crown schedule was adapted in 1932, no horse that skipped the Derby has won the Preakness and Belmont.

McCarthy was pushing to run Rombauer in the Kentucky Derby after he picked up enough qualifying points with his third-place finish in the Blue Grass (G2) April 3. However, the owners opted to bypass the Derby and wait for the Preakness. The colt, which the Fradkins had been unable to sell as planned as a 2-year-old, earned a fees-paid entry in the Preakness by winning the El Camino Real Derby, a ‘Win & In’ race Feb. 13 at Golden Gate Fields.

As he held Rombauer’s lead shank Sunday morning outside the Preakness Stakes Barn, McCarthy did not second-guess the decision to skip the Derby but pointed to his consistency.

“It’s right there on paper, the horse shows up every time,” McCarthy said. “The way the race shaped up at Churchill Downs, I’m not sure if he would’ve made any noise or not, but I think he would have been running late.”

The off-the-pace style that has worked on turf and Golden Gate’s synthetic surface carried Rombauer to his first career dirt victory in the Preakness. Jockey Flavien Plat, riding the horse for the first time, sat sixth in the field of 10 about five lengths off the pace after a half-mile in 46.93 seconds. Medina Spirit, the Kentucky Derby winner, had a half-length lead at the time, but could not shake pressing Midnight Bourbon.

The race was developing as McCarthy had hoped and he watched from the stands as Prat and Rombauer accelerated entering the second turn and moved into contention.

“I thought it was fairly formful,” McCarthy said. “If anything, I thought we were maybe just a touch closer than what I expected. It always looked like Flavien was traveling well. He was never in a bad spot. It’s only a 10-horse field but never at any time was the horse in a bad spot, finding any difficulty. The horse seemed to be responding to whatever Flavien was asking of him.”

In the stretch, Midnight Bourbon finally got his head in front of Medina Spirit. Rombauer had arrived, engaged Midnight Bourbon while racing about four wide and took command approaching the sixteenth pole.

“We got a good setup yesterday,” McCarthy said. “The way the track was playing, I was a bit concerned earlier in the day. The speed was good. The inside was good. I could see horses coming off the pace a little bit later on in the afternoon yesterday. So that sort of gave us a little sort of hope that the track was on the fairer side or getting to the fairer side.”

McCarthy and Prat discussed strategy for the Preakness and were in agreement on how Prat should ride the race.

“He said, ‘I don’t want to take the horse out of his style,’” McCarthy said.  “I said, ‘that’s the best thing to do. We’ve gotten here. We’ve come this far. It’s the right move. Go ahead and do what you’re comfortable with.’”

In the seven-plus seasons since he went home to the West Coast and launched a one-horse stable, McCarthy has emerged as one of the top trainers on the Southern California circuit. Among his big wins came with City of Light, who captured the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) in 2018 and the Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) in 2019.

Though Rombauer was 11-1 in the betting Saturday, McCarthy said he was confident going into the Preakness. 

“It’s one of those things where you like to say it would be pleasant surprise, but I thought the horse would run well,” he said. “I kept telling everyone that he would definitely run a mile and three-sixteenths. I just hoped he would do it as fast as everyone else. He did that and a little more.”