Thoroughbred trainer Michael McCarthy is no stranger when it comes to walking to the winner’s circle. Forgive him if he looks more like a Chesire cat these days as one of his recent trips to those hallowed grounds was landmark to say the least.
Winning any graded stakes race is an accomplishment. A grade 1 is a real woosh. How about a Triple Crown triumph in your very first attempt? That is what this West coast conditioner achieved on May 15 when he orchestrated Rombauer’s romp in the 146th running of the Preakness.
“When I think about it, it is really pretty overwhelming”, smiles McCarthy. “It really was an amazing experience capped by an outstanding performance by Rombauer. We were going into it very confident he was ready to run well. Our hopes were he would deliver a big effort and that is what happened.”
The Preakness win for this hard-working Ohio native was a result of a brilliant game plan playing out perfectly. His masterpiece at Pimlico was perhaps set up with his win in the El Camino Real Derby win on February 13 at Golden Gate Fields. A worst to first run that featured a huge move down the lane earned him an automatic berth in the Preakness. It also told McCarthy this son of Twirling Candy is sweet enough to compete at longer distances.
“Winning that race was a big deal for us”, says the Ohio native. “We always thought he had the stamina to run as far as the race lets him and he proved that here. He was a lot farther back than we wanted, but he had plenty of gas in his tank coming down the lane and had the heart to get his nose down at the wire. It guaranteed us a spot in the Preakness so that took some pressure off as well.”
Rombauer ran in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 3 finishing a distant third behind Essential Quality. At that point, McCarthy pointed his pony toward the Preakness with eyes on a fresh horse in the Crown’s second jewel.
With some post-Kentucky Derby rumblings regarding winner Medina Spirit and the absence of many runners from the first Saturday in May, some wondered how the race would play out. For the late running Rombauer it could not have turned out any better.
Breaking alertly under jockey Flavien Prat, Rombauer moved in mid-pack just off the rail. Orchestrating a ground-saving trip, Prat piloted his pony perfectly down the back stretch. As front-running Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon dueled on the lead, Rombauer continued to move up. Steadily stalking, his closing stride was unleashed as the runners turned for home. Swinging wide inside the eighth pole, the romp was on as Prat hit the gas pedal and a powerful push left the front-runners digesting dirt. Cruising to the wire a widening 3 ½ lengths ahead, Rombauer left no doubt as to who was the best horse on this day.
“I truly believe we had the perfect trip in the Preakness”, says McCarthy. “I couldn’t have drawn it up any better. Prat did a great job of putting him in exactly the right spot. That was the first time he had ridden Rombauer, but he worked him the week before so he had some familiarity with him and I think that helped. It was the stuff you dream about.”
The dream may continue as McCarthy has sent Rombauer to Belmont Park with eyes on a start in the third leg of the Triple Crown. The mile and a half distance of the Belmont Stakes is not really a concern and a three week space between races also bodes well. A recent work at Big Sandy went well, but McCarthy will not fully commit just yet for very good reasons.
“He came out of the Preakness in really good shape”, says McCarthy. “The thing is we want him to tell us where he needs to be. Winning the Preakness is a great achievement for our team but the bottom line is we are the same as we were before that race. We take care of what is in front of us and put the horse first and the race second.”
The horse has always been first for Michael McCarthy and he has every reason to smile about that now.