Rombauer a revelation in Preakness, but will another come in Belmont?

May 17th, 2021

A few of the Preakness S. (G1) new shooters had a case to improve, but only Rombauer stepped up to the plate with a resounding victory at Pimlico.

Will he consolidate his status in the June 5 Belmont S. (G1)? Or does the Preakness result foreshadow a breakout performance from another at Belmont Park?

Rombauer’s road not taken

My view of Rombauer was summed up in the Preakness one-liner: “Worth wondering how much stronger his résumé might look if had made other prep choices.”

That comment alludes principally to owner John Fradkin’s decision to scratch from the Jan. 30 Robert B. Lewis (G3) in favor of the Feb. 13 El Camino Real Derby. Rombauer had run a bang-up second in last fall’s American Pharoah (G1), over the very same track and trip as the Lewis, in his dirt debut. Why not return in that prep at his Santa Anita base, rather than delay two weeks and ship north to the Golden Gate Fields Tapeta main track? Fradkin’s move worked, in that Rombauer won the El Camino Real, as he was entitled to do as the 6-5 favorite.

Yet the Lewis what-if has stuck with me, ever since a lesser closer — Roman Centurian — came within an ace of winning. Roman Centurian could not quite get past Medina Spirit while nipping Hot Rod Charlie, the future first and third in the Kentucky Derby (G1), and hung late. Had Rombauer raced in the Lewis, as trainer Michael McCarthy intended, perhaps he would have overtaken both of them, and his whole profile on the Triple Crown trail would have changed.

My one-liner was also alluding, to a lesser extent, to Fradkin’s choice to ship to the April 3 Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland. To avoid Bob Baffert in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), he preferred a rematch with Essential Quality, over the same track where Rombauer finished fifth behind the champion in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). It wasn’t surprising that the best he could manage was third, in a Blue Grass race shape that didn’t suit him at all.

Not that Rombauer would have won the Santa Anita Derby, either, for no one was going to defeat Rock Your World that day. Still, considering how far a retreating Medina Spirit and Dream Shake were beaten in second and third at Santa Anita, Rombauer’s typical closing kick could have propelled him to an eye-catching placing.

The choice of preps arguably had the effect of obscuring Rombauer’s real ability. That’s not a handicapper’s complaint. Clues were there, and sharpies like our John Mucciolo, James Scully, and Keeler Johnson all picked up on them.

Rather, it’s a counterfactual regarding the three-year-old picture. If he’d stayed home for the Santa Anita preps, how much more prominent might Rombauer have been in the division?

McCarthy also wanted to advance to the Kentucky Derby, but Fradkin overruled him, in favor of the Preakness. It’s hard to argue that point now, after speed held at Churchill Downs and Rombauer rolled to a comprehensive victory at Pimlico.

At the same time, watch how he puts his head down and levels off in the manner of a serious colt, one who’d been hiding his lamp under a bushel this year.

Kentucky Derby form upended but not battered

Although Rombauer upstaged the trio coming out of the Derby, they filled the next three spots in the superfecta.

Midnight Bourbon got the trip he’d wanted in the Derby that didn’t pan out in his sixth-place finish, and the Steve Asmussen pupil did the most he could with it. After an alert break under new rider Irad Ortiz, Midnight Bourbon deployed his high cruising speed to press Medina Spirit and put him away. Just like his last two preps at Fair Grounds, however, Midnight Bourbon couldn’t see it through to the end. Given his size and scope, as a son of late-maturing Hall of Famer Tiznow (who hadn’t even broken his maiden at Midnight Bourbon's age), Midnight Bourbon has a license to strengthen in time.

Medina Spirit had the kind of trip I envisioned for him in the Derby — an unfavorable pace scenario that left the Baffert runner vulnerable down the lane. The race dynamics in the Preakness, especially two weeks after a hard-fought battle at Churchill Downs, explain his weary third. That’s not to dismiss, however, the lingering issue of his betamethasone positive from the Derby.

Keepmeinmind, like Midnight Bourbon, moved forward from his Derby seventh to close for fourth at Pimlico. The late-running colt still hasn’t matched the results from his juvenile campaign, but at least he performed better than he did in the preps.

The Derby alumni were comfortably ahead of all the new shooters, other than Rombauer.

Crowded Trade finished a decent fifth. He traveled well, in a stalking spot, and failed to pick up. Off that evidence, trainer Chad Brown’s scruple about the distance was correct, and Crowded Trade is worth following when he cuts back. Much more disappointing were his stablemate Risk Taking, who flopped in eighth, and Baffert’s other hope, Concert Tour, who threw in the towel in a poor ninth. Back to the drawing board for both of them.

Japanese shipper France Go de Ina, a tad rank in third early, tired to finish seventh. From a fitness perspective, this effort stands to benefit him going on to the Belmont, but he still has a lot to prove at this level.

Preakness clues for the Belmont?

Naturally, the question arises of how the respective second through fourth in the Derby — Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, and Essential Quality — might have fared had they wheeled back for the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. The Belmont should offer more answers.

While Mandaloun’s plans are to be determined, Hot Rod Charlie is aiming for the Belmont, and Essential Quality is under consideration, as well. So are Midnight Bourbon and Keepmeinmind, along with Derby also-rans Known Agenda, Bourbonic, Brooklyn Strong, and Rock Your World, who like Midnight Bourbon never had a chance to run his race at Churchill.

Considering the improvement from both Midnight Bourbon and Keepmeinmind at Pimlico, the other Derby alumni are eligible to turn the page in the Belmont, albeit to varying degrees.

Yet Rombauer’s emergence in the Preakness reinforces a nagging suspicion that the best three-year-old might not have competed in the Derby. The Belmont will feature other Triple Crown newcomers with a chance to step up just as he did, most notably unbeaten Kentucky Oaks (G1) heroine Malathaat and Godolphin’s UAE Derby (G2) romper Rebel’s Romance. The “Test of the Champion” promises to be a dandy.

Let’s hope Rombauer gets the chance to turn the double in the Belmont. Fradkin has also mentioned his interest in New York’s lucrative series for three-year-olds on turf. Rombauer has a whole career to pad his turf credentials, but only one more shot at a classic.