BALTIMORE — Trainer Bob Baffert couldn’t win on Saturday.
Yes, he had what appeared to be two great shots to take the 146th Preakness, with Kentucky Derby winner (for now) Medina Spirit and multiple graded stakes winner Concert Tour.
But two scenarios were available, and either one was going to cast him in a harsh light. It’s been that kind of two weeks.
No. 1, both of his horses get beat on the track, or No. 2, one of them wins and the trumpet section of public opinion blasts away again about how he’s a cheater, especially if Medina Spirit was the one to win it. We got Door No. 1 when Rombauer won by 3 1/2 lengths over Midnight Bourbon, with Medina Spirit third and Concert Tour ninth in the field of 10.
I prefer not to contemplate how insane the media buzz would have been over the next three weeks if Medina Spirit had won the Preakness and was in line to become the Hall of Famer Baffert’s third Triple Crown winner since 2015 with a win in the June 5 Belmont Stakes.
The Medina Spirit story is far from over, though, since there remains a pending split sample drug test result that, if positive, would strip Medina Spirit of his Derby win through disqualification, handing the race to runner-up Mandaloun.
Pimlico and Baffert jumped through hoops this week to prove that he was bringing clean horses into Preakness weekend, through three rounds of tests. But the Derby split sample still looms.
There’s a quick and easy conclusion out there waiting for people to pound like a pinata, that because Medina Spirit tested negative this week and lost, that the horse can’t win without performance-enhancing drugs. This is a ridiculous assumption, since the drug in question, the legal anti-inflammatory betamethasone, is therapeutic and was so small in quantity in the Derby test that it’s hard to believe it helped him.
I’ll give Baffert that one, sort of. But people are going to think that way. The fact remains that his horse tested positive, which is grounds for a DQ if the split sample backs it up. Rules are rules.
Baffert doubled down on his PR campaign a few hours before post time for the Preakness, supplying the NBC broadcast with six paragraphs of gunk that reiterated all of his arguments and supposed victimhood, while fishing for sympathy.
“I have been deeply saddened to see this case portrayed as a ‘doping’ scandal,” paragraph 5 begins, and I’m sure he is sad, but I’m not giving him that one, because of his history. If the lab bangs one of his horses, there are years of context that drop from the ceiling like an old, dirty theater backdrop.
I was interested to see what sort of fan reaction Medina Spirit would draw before the race, and participated in the walkover from the stakes barn and along the outside rail on the way to the paddock to be saddled.
There was smattering of positive comments from the well-oiled railbirds, and good for them, because the horse didn’t do anything wrong.
Baffert stayed in California and left the management of his Preakness horses to long-time assistant Jimmy Barnes, who said, “A little disappointed, but we go on from here.”
Meanwhile, Rombauer’s should be one of those racing stories that are impossible for fans not to like.
His breeder-owners, John and Diane Fradkin, have all of two broodmares in their operation, and usually sell their progeny, but some COVID-19-related factors last year led to the Fradkins keeping this one.
Trainer Michael McCarthy, a former assistant to Todd Pletcher, repeatedly choked up during the post-Preakness press conference, crediting his wife and young daughter, who were back in California, for tolerating the incredible time constraints of his profession.
“My wife was up at 3 o’clock this morning, California time, helping me out, doing some things,” he said. “This trophy is as much my family’s as it is mine.”
“That’s what our game is built on,” he said, of the smaller outfits like his. “There’s so much good that goes into getting to the races, let alone a race like the Preakness. There are trainers that that have a handful of horses that are just as well suited to train hundreds of horses.
“But you just never know where a good horse is going to come from. I’m glad this one landed in our lap. I don’t think the journey is over. We’ll see where it takes us.”
For one day, at least, racing hit the “refresh” button.
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