Two days before the May 21 Preakness Stakes (gr. I), trainer Dale Romans was standing outside the fence by the grazing area telling Shackleford’s co-owners and breeders Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge how revved up their colt was since arriving at Baltimore the day before. As he spoke, Shackleford was in his stall ripping into his hay rack with great vigor.
“He got off the van high as a kite,” Romans said. “When I had him out grazing, he wanted to buck with me. He came out of the Derby sharper than he went in; it’s unreal. He’s been a man since he came out of that race. I’ve never seen him like this. When he was out on the track yesterday, he started bucking in the middle of his gallop.”
Just then, a loud noise could be heard from Shacklelford’s stall. Romans and his partner in life and assistant Tammy Fox went over to check it out. As if offering visual proof to back up his trainer’s words, the big chestnut, right on cue, had lunged forward breaking the crossbar above his webbing. He stood there sheepishly as the screws were reinserted in the wall.
Two days later, Shackleford again lunged forward, this time as he was turning back the challenge of Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Animal Kingdom. It was that final lunge with 70 yards to go that enabled the son of Forestry – Oatsee, by Unbridled to capture the second leg of the Triple Crown and provide Romans with his first classic winner.
The script for the Preakness had been played out perfectly. Romans knew the pace of the race would be the key factor for Shackleford, who had the swift-footed Flashpoint directly inside him and the talented stalkers Midnight Interlude and Dance City two stalls away on his outside.
Although it seemed to many that Shackleford’s only chance was for him and Flashpoint to slow the pace down, Romans had a different take. He felt Shackleford had too much stamina and class for Flashpoint and eventually would assert his authority and take control of the race. By letting his colt establish a quick pace early he could take his pursuers out of their comfort zone.
“You go slow and you let them in the game,” Romans said the day before the Preakness. “When I had Roses in May, I always told the jock to let him roll and kill off everyone behind him. He had speed and wanted to go on, just like Shackleford. When I sat down with (jockey) John Velazquez before the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), the natural inclination was for Johnny to slow the pace down. I said ‘Bull; this horse is fast and could keep going and they can’t keep up with him.’ He just gunned him out of there and let him go fast the whole way. It looked like Choctaw Nation (a powerful closer) was going to blow right by him in the stretch, but he hit a wall, because he had worked so hard just to get up to him.”
Romans had just written the script for the 136th Preakness. When Shackleford and Flashpoint tore through an opening quarter in a rapid :22.69, most everyone felt they both were cooked. But by running that quickly early, it forced his main threat, Animal Kingdom, to retreat to the back of the pack in 13th, nearly 20 lengths behind the dueling leaders.
Shackleford and Flashpoint then were able to slow the pace down, and as Romans expected, Shackleford roared by Flashpoint on the far turn. Midnight Interlude, Astrology, and Dance City, who had been racing in third, fourth, and fifth, respectively, tried to close in, but Shackleford was now in complete control of the race. He was able to open a clear lead in the stretch, while closing his final three-sixteenths in a quick :19.25.
Animal Kingdom came charging at him, but had to make up that 18-length deficit in doing so. That, combined with Shackleford’s tenacity, led to the Derby winner’s downfall. Just like Choctaw Nation and Roses in May in the 2005 World Cup, Animal Kingdom had worked hard just to get up to Shackleford and couldn’t get by the gutsy colt, who had plenty left to repulse the challenge. Romans’ perfect script again had a perfect ending.
Up in his box, Romans stood up and began pounding on his chair as they neared the wire. After Shackleford had held on for the victory, Romans fell over Tammy and their son 15-year-old Jake and 18-year-old daughter Bailey, and then picked all three of them up in one massive bear hug.
“I’ve never seen him get that emotional,” Bailey said. “He literally fell over all of us. He gave us a hug like you could never imagine. My mom, my brother, and me, he grabbed us and picked us up at the same time. It was amazing.”
Jake added, “He was going crazy. He was pretty nervous before the race. I could tell, because I said something to him and he wouldn’t answer me.”
One of the reasons why Romans seemed to be a bit out of sorts prior to the race was because he had just received a phone call while crossing the track after saddling Shackleford informing him that Paddy O’Prado, who had just won the Dixie Stakes (gr. II) the race before, was limping in the test barn, located on the backstretch. The veterinarian asked if he wanted to van him back to the barn or walk him. It was decided to van him back.
Following the Preakness, there was Shackleford attacking his hay rack as visitors snapped photos of him, while Paddy O’Prado stood in the stall next to him, his injured foot in an ice bucket. Two days later he would be retired.
“It’s unreal, the ups and downs of this game,” said Romans, whose horse, by finishing second in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and winning the Preakness, had just won a $550,000 consolation bonus, sponsored by Magna International Developments.
Those ups and downs held true for Mike Lauffer, who rejoiced over Shackleford’s victory while having to cope with the unexpected death of his future son-in-law several days earlier. Although he'd be attending the funeral on Monday, Lauffer kept the tragedy to himself and tried to soak in every moment of what likely will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“My wife and daughter are doing fine; they’re absolutely ecstatic about the race,” Lauffer said, wanting to focus on the victory. “Our little town of Paintsville, Ky. has been so excited about the Derby and now the Preakness. It’s just unbelievable how lucky I’ve been in this business. I’ve only been involved for six years and I’ve already been part owner of Rachel Alexandra, and now Bill and I win the Preakness with the first colt we’ve ever raced.”
Lauffer’s son Seth added, “It's been a rough week, but right now I’m so excited my legs are still numb. I remember Dale telling me and my dad after he had Shackleford about two weeks, ‘We’re going to have a lot of fun with this horse.’”
The victory also was emotional for jockey Jesus Castanon, who lost his father, a former trainer in Mexico City, last November. “When I crossed the wire he just came to me,” he said. “I know he was up there watching me.”
Romans still found it hard to believe how far he’s come since he and his brother, Jerry, were emptying out muck baskets and filling up water buckets for their father at the age of 8.
“It’s unbelievable,” Romans said. “I’ve been on the racetrack my entire life and I never thought training stakes horses was a realistic goal starting out, much less having a classic winner. Since starting with my father (who died in 2008 at age 58), I’ve been in the same barn at Churchill Downs for 40 years, and we lived only three miles from the track. Getting a horse like this wasn’t even a dream. All I was looking to do was make a living in this business in some way.”
From a career that began with mostly claimers, Romans has now finished in the top four in five consecutive Triple Crown races (third in the Kentucky Derby with Paddy O’Prado, second in the Preakness with First Dude, third in the Belmont with First Dude, fourth in the Kentucky Derby with Shackleford, and first in the Preakness with Shackleford).
Jerry, who works for R.J. Reynolds and owns the stakes-winning Sassy Image, trained by his brother, added, “Our father (also named Jerry) had us walking hots and rolling bandages when we were 10 and we both had our trainer’s license at 16. He just had cheap claimers his entire career. He didn’t like babies, because he said you had your money tied up too long, and he couldn’t bring himself to spend $100,000 of some guy’s money and then look him in the eye and tell him his horse ain’t worth $10,000. He liked claiming horses, because you could turn right around and see them run. Dad accommodated the average man; he’d seen too many owners go broke in this game. Shackleford is probably worth more than the total value of all the horses our dad ever trained. He’d be immensely proud if he were here today.”
“I think he’d be blown away,” Dale said. “I don’t think he won but two or three stakes his entire career, but it was a good enough career to raise us all.”
Romans, Lauffer, and Cubbedge knew early on that Shackleford had the potential to be something special after buying him back for $275,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale. But he first had a good deal of maturing to do.
“He needed time to be the best he could be,” said Webb Carroll, who broke the colt and put him through his early training at his facility in St. Matthews, S.C. “He kept getting better and better and better. He always had the ability to think things through. In the beginning he was reluctant to get in the gate, but we never pushed him. I just got in his mind and finessed him and played with him. Then one day he amazed us. Out of the clear blue sky he just walked in on his own and was never a problem again. Dale has done a fantastic job with him by allowing him to mature. We always treated him like a class horse and that’s what he’s become.”
Shackleford broke his maiden going seven furlongs at Churchill Downs last Nov. 27 in his second career start, and showed his gameness and tenacity even then by battling head and head on the lead, getting passed at the eighth pole, and coming back to win by three-quarters of a length. He then stretched out to 1 1/8 miles in a Gulfstream allowance race and stalked the pace before drawing off to win by 2 ¼ lengths, despite racing greenly through the stretch.
Although he ran a poor race in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II), getting beat by more than 23 lengths after hitting his head hard in the starting gate, Romans still had confidence in him and wheeled him back in the Florida Derby, where he was beaten a head at 68-1 by Dialed In, battling back after being caught at the sixteenth pole. In the Kentucky Derby, he set all the pace and opened up a clear lead in the stretch, while down on the rail, but was overtaken in the final sixteenth by Animal Kingdom, Nehro (second), and Mucho Macho Man (third), who all made their run well out in the middle of the track.
Romans had no reservations about running him back in two weeks at Pimlico. “He’s training like the two weeks won’t bother him at all,” he said. “He tries all the way to the wire, so we’ve got to keep swinging.”
Shackleford did the swinging in the Preakness and hit it out of the park, despite stumbling coming out of the gate. After that torrid opening quarter, he and Flashpoint were able to slow the pace down, getting the half in :46.87 and the three-quarters in 1:12.01.
“That middle part of the race made it for the winner,” said Animal Kingdom’s trainer Graham Motion, who had kept his colt at the Fair Hill training center, some 60 miles from Pimlico, until the morning of May 21, thus leaving the traditional Derby winner’s “Stall 40” empty until race day for the first time in memory.
Astrology, one of the nine new shooters who did not run in the Derby, saved ground all the way in third, followed by Midnight Interlude and Dance City. Mucho Macho Man was in tight quarters between horses down the backstretch, and as he did in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), he lost a shoe in the race and came back with several cuts. Dialed In, second choice at 4-1, again brought up the rear, right behind Animal Kingdom, who was sent off as the 2-1 favorite.
Animal Kingdom began to pick off horses around the turn, but had a lot of ground to make up on Shackleford, who was still going along easily with his ears cocked. Turning for home, Shackleford kicked on, opening a one-length lead over Astrology at the eighth pole, with Animal Kingdom bearing down on them. Mucho Macho Man somehow had wound up widest off and didn’t have his usual kick. Dialed in was in traffic and making a belated run.
When Shackleford began drifting in down the stretch, Castanon went to a left-handed whip, which resulted in the colt drifting back out. Castanon then switched to a right-handed whip as Animal Kingdom came charging up on his flank. That right-handed whip caused Shackleford to jump back to his left lead. Whether or not it was the change of leads, Shackleford found more and regained the momentum, turning back Animal Kingdom’s challenge. At that point, it became obvious there would be no Triple Crown attempt this year.
The margin of victory was a half-length, with Animal Kingdom 1 ¼ lengths ahead of a stubborn Astrology, who finished 2 ½ lengths in front of Dialed In. The last named was running for the big $5.5 million pot of the Magna bonus. The final time for the 1 3/16 miles was 1:56.47 over a drying out fast track.
Back at the barn, Motion came over to congratulation Romans. “Sonofagun,” he said putting his arm on Romans’ shoulder.
Romans shook his head and said, “It’s unbelievable,” to which Motion replied, “It’s a funny game.”
Romans took it one step further: “It’s a great game. Hopefully, we can have a great rivalry the rest of the year.”
Motion had to be grateful to Romans for his assistance following the Kentucky Derby.
“After the race, Graham and I both came down the hall to go to the track and he was going in the wrong direction,” Romans said. “I stopped to congratulate him and we hugged. I told him he was going the wrong way. He grabbed the back of my jacket and said, ‘I’ve got to hold on to you; I don’t know where I’m going.’ He followed me and he had a tear rolling down his face. He said, ‘Thank God, someone knows where they’re going.’ I led him down the steps and you could tell he was just in another world.”
Romans needed no guidance finding his way to the track at Pimlico, although one could say he also appeared to be in another world. He couldn’t help but think back to where he had come from.
Barns 4 and 5, the latter eventually becoming Romans’ barn, at Churchill have always been run like a family affair, just as it was when Romans and Jerry were growing up in Barn 4, which is now Romans’ second barn. “I spent more time there than I did at home,” Romans said.
“We have a great team from top to bottom,” he added. “We have hotwalkers that have been with us for over 10 years. My assistants have been together since we were 19 and 20 working for my father. And Tammy is a huge part of the stable. She breezes all the horses, and there is nobody that gives a better line on a horse than she does.”
Back at the stakes barn, Lauffer had nothing but admiration for his horse, his trainer, and his jockey.
“I’ll tell you what, there’s no quit in that horse,” Laufffer said. “He just doesn’t want to get beat. I am so tickled for that man (pointing to Romans) right there and also for Jesus Castanon.”
Lauffer’s family moved from Marietta, Ohio to Paintsville in Eastern Kentucky, about five miles from Butcher Hollow of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” fame. His father was a petroleum engineer and Lauffer eventually went into the oil and gas business, where he met Cubbedge, who has a dry, in-your-face sense of humor, but prefers letting Lauffer do most of the talking.
After going into partnership on Rachel Alexandra with the filly’s owner and breeder Dolphus Morrison, Lauffer and Morrison sold her following the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) to Jess Jackson for $10 million.
“I told Dolphus and (trainer) Hal Wiggins, ‘Look, you guys have been in the business for over 30 years, so you all can call the shots,’” Lauffer said. “It’s hard to turn down that kind of money.”
Lauffer and Cubbedge decided to name their Forestry colt Shackleford after Shackleford Island, located off the coast of North Carolina.
“There have been wild horses on the island since the 16th century,” Lauffer said. “Some people think a Spanish ship sunk off shore and several of the horses jumped off the ship and swam to this island.”
As for Animal Kingdom, Motion’s wife Anita said, “We’re incredibly proud of him. He backed up his Derby win.”
Motion added, “It wasn’t meant to be. He came pretty darn close, though. He got a lot of dirt kicked in his face today, which was different from the Derby. Johnny (Velazquez) said he was a little closer to the other horses in the Derby, so he took most of the dirt on his chest, whereas today he got a lot of it in his face, so it took him longer to get in gear. This is a remarkable horse. What he has accomplished in such a short period of time is extraordinary. He performed brilliantly.”
Romans expects to take a lot of kidding when he gets back to Churchill Downs, especially from the locals who have shared the trainer’s stand by his barn for years.
“They’ve been giving me hell since before the Derby,” Romans said. “They told me if I win the Derby or one of the other classics they’re gonna have to build me a separate stand, because my ego won’t fit in that one.”
Romans said he would meet with the media the morning after the race at 7:30. At about 7:15, he called Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal to say he and his family were running about 15 minutes late, and in typical Romans fashion, asked if any of the media wanted coffee from Starbucks. Rees took the orders from the nine journalists there and relayed them to Romans, who even threw in a hot chocolate as a bonus.
“I went to bed for an hour or two,” said a disheveled Romans, looking as if he had just gotten out of bed. “I don’t know how Todd Pletcher and Wayne Lukas do it. They look so pristine all the time. I walk out of my house to my car and I’m sweating and wrinkled and my shirttail’s out. Dan Bork at Churchill Downs (assistant racing secretary) said I was the best at making an expensive suit look cheap.”
But that is one of the endearing qualities that makes Romans one of the most amiable and well-liked trainers in the country. Perhaps he best described himself through Shackleford.
“He’s just a big easy-going horse,” he said. “I guess they take on the personality of their trainer.”