Battle of the sexes may be brewing in Belmont Stakes

Battle of the sexes may be brewing in Belmont Stakes
Photo: Ron Flatter

Baltimore

Mike McCarthy always seems open in conversation, perfectly willing to answer every question laid at his feet. Yet he is a trainer who is always politely soft-spoken so as not to ripple the calm around him. 

If only Rombauer could take the hint.

A day after he won the Preakness Stakes, he stood outside the stakes barn at Pimlico, playfully chewing at the chain on his bridle while McCarthy held his rein and talked with reporters.

“He’s pretty handy,” McCarthy said. “He always has high energy.”

Enough to take aim next month on the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont Stakes, maybe in a showdown with undefeated Kentucky Oaks winner Malathaat.

Not just racing fans but McCarthy, too, can dare to dream of such a matchup with the star filly in the barn of his old boss Todd Pletcher. Who knows? Rombauer could even bunk there when he is vanned to Long Island on Monday. Or not.

“I don’t think so,” McCarthy said. “I don’t want to be a distraction. I’d love to do it, but I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do, especially with the filly if she’s going to run in the Belmont. I would upset the apple cart with a lot of commotion.”

It might be too late for that. After the medication controversy surrounding Medina Spirit’s victory in the Kentucky Derby and his failed bid to win the Preakness, a battle of the sexes in a Triple Crown finale lacking a Triple Crown possibility would provide a refreshing jolt to the sport’s atmosphere.

For the record, Pletcher said in a text message Sunday that he had not decided whether to send Malathaat into the Belmont.

“Not yet,” concurred Rick Nichols, general manager of Malathaat’s owner, Shadwell Farm.

Even though his home is in California now, McCarthy clearly enjoys a convivial relationship with the East Coast-based Pletcher, for whom he worked for 12 years, including 2007 when Rags to Riches became the most recent filly to win the Belmont. It was Pletcher who was on the track Saturday to quickly congratulate McCarthy.

“Yeah, that was very nice,” McCarthy said. “Everything we do sort of channels through our time there. I was lucky enough to have plenty of experiences in races like this, even though it was my first Triple Crown starter. Being around multiple horses that have competed in the Kentucky Derby, I was lucky enough to be there with Super Saver when he won in 2010. In the Belmont Stakes, I was lucky enough to be around Palace Malice and Rags to Riches.”

Rombauer’s ability to make up ground late in his victories is one sign that he would be suited to the longer distance of the Belmont. But that only scratches the surface of what McCarthy has been weighing.

“I think there’s so many things you factor in,” McCarthy said. “The racetrack configuration is certainly unlike anything we see on the West Coast or the Midwest or here in the mid-Atlantic. I think the two surfaces at Santa Anita and Belmont Park may be similar. I’m hanging my hat on the fact that hopefully he’ll handle it there.”

He also might have to handle Midnight Bourbon all over again. Trainer Steve Asmussen said the Belmont is being considered for the Preakness runner-up.

“Of course it is,” he said. “I think that he proved that all major 3-year-old races are under consideration for the rest of the year. With us getting back to normal (scheduling) circumstances, just to see where we’re at with him, it will give us time to see everything that’s out there and map out a plan for him for the second half of the year.”

McCarthy and Asmussen said their horses came out of the Preakness in good order. So did Bob Baffert’s assistant Jimmy Barnes, who otherwise deflected questions about third-place Medina Spirit and the eased ninth-place finisher Concert Tour as he prepared to ship five horses that made the trip to Maryland.

“We’re going to load up these, head back to Churchill, and Bob will call me this evening and let me know what we’re doing,” Barnes said. “Other than that, everybody came out of the race in good shape, and we’re going back to Churchill.”

Barnes did say in parting, “We’ll see you in New York.” He just did not say who he would be bringing with him.

While the Baffert traveling party – sans Baffert all week – was preparing for the 600-mile drive back to Kentucky, McCarthy was making final arrangements to have his new winner shipped north while he himself was about to fly home to California after finishing a few chores at the Pimlico stakes barn.

“I’ll pack the tack trunk and do a little laundry here,” he said. “That’s about it.”

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