Originally, it seemed that this Twirling Candy colt had a promising turf career in front of him. As it turned out, he did one better.
Adroit on grass, dirt and synthetic, he fought to the wire whether he a win or a minor award was at stake. He could outrun his odds when the wagering stopped, and he could justify the top billing provided to him by handicappers.
Eventually, you would find him going for the lead. But first, you had to look for him either in midpack or, as was more often the case, towards the back.
He was fine with a slow or fast pace, too. But he would move. And by the summer of 2021, the horse who started his racing career on the green later stood as a victor in one of Thoroughbred racing's most sought after events.
With Southern California racing in his genes before he even started training as a racehorse, Rombauer debuted at 16-1 odds at Del Mar in July 2020. He surprised the fans with a nice rally from behind to win first time out with a well-timed finish at one mile. Winning on the first try while routing can be tough, but Rombauer loved to run and would not relent.
That effort gave him a lofty jump in class, for he started next in Del Mar's Juvenile Turf Stakes. Rombauer finished off the board, but he turned in a good effort by gaining in the stretch and only losing by a couple of lengths.
Being a juvenile, Rombauer definitely had a chance to improve, and the Juvenile Turf Stakes offered a glimpse of his class. He validated that run in late September in Santa Anita's Grade I American Pharoah Stakes. Trying a dirt surface for the first time, he trailed the field before clearing most of his rivals on the outside in the far turn. He picked up second place in his first Grade I, but he also gained on the leader and accounted well for himself at the highest class level in the sport.
After a fifth place in the Grade I Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Rombauer was not seen again until February 2021 in the El Camino Real Derby. Shipping to another circuit, Rombauer made the trip successful as he went off favored and went from last to first to take the El Camino Real. More than ten lengths back at one point, Rombauer started moving up in the far turn before taking a wide turn at the top of the stretch. His charge to the front was workmanlike, but the confidence he had was palpable. As shown in prior starts, he was a true racehorse.
Next, Rombauer went from California to Kentucky for the Grade II Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. He picked up third as eventual Three-Year-Old Champion Essential Quality went on to win, but Rombauer was tenacious in the stretch. He held off a challenge for third and kept moving to the wire to pick up the show spot after being much closer to the pace than usual. That ended his Kentucky Derby prep season, but the Kentucky Derby was actually not in Rombauer's future.
Skipping the Derby in favor of the Preakness, Rombauer again stayed closer to the front. With perfect aim on the leaders in the stretch, he emulated his El Camino Real Derby performance with a stirring finish to join the likes of Tank's Prospect and the legendary Cal-bred Snow Chief as winners of both the El Camino Real Derby and Preakness Stakes. In the span of just over six months, Rombauer went from maiden winner to owner of a piece of the Triple Crown. No one could have guessed he would do that, but Rombauer time and again showed his brilliance and ability to adapt. By far the biggest win of his career, he was truly a worthy winner of the Triple Crown's middle jewel.
Trainer Michael McCarthy and owner-breeders John and Diane Fradkin soon opted for the Belmont Stakes. Once more, Essential Quality got the better of him (as did Hot Rod Charlie who also finished ahead of him in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile), but Rombauer's resolve netted him a third in the mile and one-half contest. That served as his career finale, but Rombauer had long confirmed his class and talent. In less than a year, he had grown into something special.
Any horse who can win on dirt, synthetic and turf deserves admiration. Rombauer was a good horse just on the fact he could handle each surface. But his refusal to quit is what really shaped his overall record. He would not settle for anything less than one hundred percent, and that made him a horse owners and trainers dream of having. The horsemanship of McCarthy certainly facilitated Rombauer's good results, but some horses just have that drive to keep going to the wire. Rombauer had that, and he used it to his full advantage.
Though not destined to race as an older horse, Rombauer still shined at three. A true beacon of talent, he was rugged, driven, tough, and unyielding each time he saw action.
And looking back, those traits made it easy for fans to root for him.