Making the Grade, which will run through the 2021 Triple Crown races, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an impact on the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.
Following the Triple Crown races, I like to go back in this blog and re-evaluate the winner to see how he achieved the classic victory and explore how he might fare in the next leg of the series. With Rombauer, his owners-breeders were not dazzled by the allure of running in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. They preferred to wait for what they felt was a better spot for the Twirling Candy colt, and that patience paid off May 15 with a 3 ½-length romp in the Preakness Stakes.
Ability: There were several interesting sidebar stories that came out of Rombauer’s Preakness Stakes victory.
First, his breeders, John and Diane Fradkin, thought he would show talent early in his career and they would then be able to sell him for a fair price. Rombauer lived up to his part of that equation by winning his debut and running second in the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes in his third career start, but the offers the Fradkins expected never came. So, the couple decided to keep him.
Second, like his owners-breeders, trainer Michael McCarthy believed in Rombauer’s talent as well. He even pushed hard to send the El Camino Real Derby winner to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve when he amassed enough points while finishing third in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, but the Fradkins thought the Preakness was a better fit for his late-closing running style and gave him a better chance to succeed as a less-daunting race with a less traffic than the Derby.
Ultimately, both owners and trainer were correct to have confidence in Rombauer.
“It’s nice to see this all kind of come together. The horse justified what I thought of him all along,” McCarthy said, adding of the Derby. “It’s right there on paper, the horse shows up every time. 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.”
Rombauer improved to three wins, one second, and one third from seven career races with the Preakness victory. His two unplaced finishes came when he was beaten by two lengths when sixth in the Del Mar Juvenile Turf Stakes in his second career start and when Rombauer was fifth at 26-1 odds in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.
As McCarthy mentioned above, Rombauer always gives an honest effort. However, the Preakness was unquestionably a breakout race for the improving 3-year-old. Not only was it his most dominant win to date, but it came in a Triple Crown race and produced the best speed figures of his career.
Rombauer improved his Beyer Speed Figure from a previous top of 88 all the way to a 102; he jumped seven points from a previous best 96 Brisnet speed rating to a 103; and his top Equibase Speed Figure rose three points to a 103.
The winning time for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness was 1:53.62, which is the second fastest in the last 14 years, trailing only Swiss Skydiver’s time from a year ago when the race was held in October and the 3-year-olds had more time to mature.
Running style: In the lead up to the Kentucky Derby, this running style section is often dominated by terms like tactical speed and ideal position, the latter of which has meant being in the top three early in the first jewel of the Triple Crown. Counting the disqualified Maximum Security in 2019, the 3-year-old who crossed the finish line first in each of the last eight editions of the Derby was third or better after the opening quarter-mile.
That is a major part of the reason Rombauer was instead pointed to the Preakness.
Rombauer profiles as an off-the-pace closer who prefers to save his stamina for one big run near the end of his races. He does have enough natural speed to race a bit nearer to the front when necessary as he did when third in the Blue Grass Stakes and, to an extent, in the Preakness when he was sixth after the first half-mile, but only four lengths off the pace.
Given that speed had been especially effective at Pimlico for most of Preakness weekend, McCarthy and jockey Flavien Prat discussed amending strategy before the race but decided to stick with the tactics that got Rombauer into the starting gate.
“The way the track was playing, I was a bit concerned earlier in the day,” McCarthy said.
“[Prat] said, ‘I don’t want to take the horse out of his style,’ ” McCarthy added. “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.’ ”
Given the success he’s had in two starts where he was a little bit closer to the front, it’s fair to wonder if Rombauer might be most effective as more of a stalker/closer than a deep closer. Employing those tactics has been quite effective in his two most recent races, although he did rally from far back to win the EL Camino Real Derby in February.
Connections: John and Diane Fradkin are Santa Ana, Calif. residents who own a pair of broodmares and typically breed to sell the racehorses that the two mares produce.
“Generally speaking, we think of ourselves as small-time, commercial breeders. We aim to sell our progeny,” John Fradkin told BloodHorse. “This is a rarity. In the past we’ve pretty much only raced horses that we couldn’t sell. This is kind of an exception, just the way it all transpired.”
The Fradkins said bloodstock agent Eddie Woods advised the couple to sell Rombauer privately after he had a shot to prove himself at the track because his dam (mother), Cashmere, usually produces precocious racehorses who excel early on in their careers. But even after his debut win, the offers didn’t come and instead the couple wound up with a Preakness Stakes winner.
McCarthy was with the Pletcher barn when Rags to Riches and Palace Malice won the Belmont Stakes in 2007 and 2013, respectively, and when Super Saver won the 2010 Kentucky Derby.
McCarthy went out on his own in 2014 and has amassed 38 stakes wins and 28 graded stakes wins through May 18, including victories by City of Light in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and $9 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes in January 2019. Rombauer was California-based McCarthy’s first starter in a Triple Crown race.
Jockey Flavien Prat is the son of a trainer who had ridden in Germany, Italy, and his native France before moving to the United States to ride full time. Prat has amassed more than 1,000 victories, including 34 Grade 1 wins, and earned his first victory in a Triple Crown race via disqualification in 2019 aboard Country House in the Kentucky Derby. Rombauer was Prat’s first mount in the Preakness Stakes. A three-time Breeders’ Cup winner, Prat guided Hot Rod Charlie to a third-place finish in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.
Pedigree: Rombauer is one of 27 stakes winners sired by Twirling Candy, a Grade 1 winner who has six crops age 3 and older so far in his second career at stud. He was a track-record setter at seven-eighths of a mile during his racing career and also ran second in the 1 ¼-mile TVG Pacific Classic on the synthetic surface at Del Mar and won a Grade 2 stakes on the grass.
Not surprisingly, Twirling Candy has likewise been a versatile sire with Concrete Rose, a Grade 1 winner on grass; 2019 Santa Anita Handicap winner Gift Box and 2016 San Felipe Stakes winner Danzing Candy excelling in two-turn dirt races; and Finley’sluckycharm and Morticia developing into standout sprinters.
Rombauer is out of the Fradkins’ unraced Cowboy Cal mare Cashmere, who has also produced stakes-placed winners Treasure Trove and Cono.
Cashmere is out of Ultrafleet, whom the Fradkins consider their “foundation mare.”
Ultrafleet, by Afleet, produced 2009 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner California Flag as well as elite turf sprinter Cambiocorsa, who was bred by the Fradkins, earned more than $500,000, and won multiple graded stakes.
Cambiocorsa went on to enjoy a terrific second career as a broodmare, producing four stakes winners as well as the dam of 2018 European Horse of the Year Roaring Lion.
As far as pedigree relates to Rombauer’s chances in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, I’d like to see a bit more stamina on the bottom half. But as with most of the runners, it will probably be the first and last time he tries this marathon distance. How he finished in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness is a far better indicator for how he’ll stretch out another five-sixteenths of a mile on June 5, and he seemed to have plenty of fuel in the tank in the Pimlico stretch.
Belmont Stakes Chances: With so many runners from the Kentucky Derby skipping the Preakness and pointing to the Belmont Stakes, I view the quality of competition Rombauer will face as a step up in class.
The second- and third-place finishers in the Preakness, Midnight Bourbon and Derby winner Medina Spirit, respectively, both were coming back on two weeks rest after competing in the Kentucky Derby, while Rombauer had six weeks off between the Blue Grass and Preakness. That was a significant advantage in that race that he will not have in the Belmont Stakes.
Derby third-place finisher Hot Rod Charlie, fourth-place finisher Essential Quality, and other well-regarded Derby runners like Known Agenda and Rock Your World will have five weeks of rest entering the final jewel of the Triple Crown.
Rombauer is nonetheless a serious win candidate off a career-best race for a very good trainer, and I’d peg him as probably the third or fourth choice in the betting when the starting gates open June 5. That probably is fair given he was beaten by Essential Quality in the Blue Grass Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and several other top contenders from the Derby will be better rested.