Somewhere there is a Kentucky Derby with Dale Romans’ name on it. Having grown up a just few miles from Churchill Downs and having spent a good portion of his youth there working for his father, Romans has been dreaming of the roses almost his entire life. But the harsh realities of backstretch life on the claiming scale made it nothing more than a seemingly unattainable dream.
It was a dream that certainly was way too big for his father, who trained mostly claimers. But since he has forged his own path in life, no goal has been too big for an eternal optimist like Romans, who always shoots from the hip and is never shy of telling you how he feels and who and what horse he likes and doesn’t like.
So, when he said all along he felt Keen Ice had made great strides since his second-place finish behind American Pharoah in the Haskell Invitational and had a big chance to upset the Triple Crown winner in the Travers, it would have been wise to pay attention.
When the dust had cleared, Romans had added another score to already impressive resume. While he has yet to land the roses, he has sure picked up a lot of trophies along the way. In addition to the Travers, Romans has won the Preakness, Breeders’ Cup Turf, Breeders’ Cup Mile, Dubai World Cup, Arlington Million, Whitney, and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, just to name a few. In 2012, he received an Eclipse Award as leading trainer and was named Big Sport of Turfdom by the Turf Publicists of America.
Twice he was able to take grass horses (Paddy O’Prado and Dullahan) owned by Keen Ice’s owner Donegal Stable and finish third in the Kentucky Derby with them.
Romans is a large man, with a seemingly easy-going demeanor who looks content to just mosey along a few steps slower than everybody else. But although he may appear to lull you to sleep, there is a dynamo of a trainer beneath that sauntering exterior who goes right for the jugular regardless of who he’s up against.
Just like when he was young, battling dyslexia, people have underestimated Romans. He was always a lot smarter than people thought. Today, the trainers who oppose him on a regular basis know how difficult it is to outthink him.
And if you happen to get by the Romans family’s first line of defense, there is Tammy Fox, a former jockey (who won 236 races) and Romans’ longtime partner and mother of their two children, Bailey and Jake. Fox is a diminutive spitfire with an infectious personality and smile who’s pretty much given up trying to get Dale to marry her. Dale is big and strong and is not intimidated by anyone, but Tammy is the one you don’t want to mess with. From a physical standpoint, it’s been said that Dale and Tammy were like a St. Bernard being paired with a Chihuahua.
They have two great kids, and it’s been obvious since he was young that Jake has the racetrack in his blood and could be very easily follow in his father’s footsteps.
The Romans barn has always operated as a family-run operation from the time Dale was a kid, hanging out and working at Barn 4 at Churchill Downs almost every day with his brother Jerry.
Romans’ barn has always been run as a family affair, just as it was when he 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. 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.”
Romans still finds it hard to believe how far he’s come since he and Jerry were emptying out muck baskets and filling up water buckets for their father at the age of 8.
After winning the Preakness with Shackleford, his first and only classic victory, Romans said, “It’s unbelievable. 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 59), 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.”
Having grown up in the shadow of Churchill Downs, Romans appreciates the history of the Derby. Several years ago he visited the graveyard at Calumet Farm and became caught up in its history seeing the Derby winners and the two Triple Crown winners (Citation and Whirlaway) who are buried there.
“It’s one of the coolest places, sort of the Mecca of horseracing in my opinion,” he said. “I’ve been there several times, but it always gives me chills to pull through those red gates. When they open up, to think I’m driving down the same lane that Ben Jones drove down. It’s a sacred place.”
In many ways, so is Barn 4 at Churchill Downs. Romans occupies two barns there now, and he can’t help but think back to those early days when grade I races were so far beyond their reach they seemed like an unattainable goal.
“I don’t ever remember not being here,” Romans said. “I spent every day here. One day me and my best friend were snapping shanks around those bars up there in the hay loft. We took them and jumped and we’re swinging out of the loft from the shanks. My dad’s assistant trainer started chasing me and I took off down the street. I was 12 years old when I took my first horse over to the track as a groom. My dad was just starting training and didn’t have near enough help, so the assistant tied a knot at the end of the shank and gave me the horse, and said. ‘Now if he tries to hurt you on the way just turn him loose.’ I took him over there and I was the proudest person in the world. I told my dad what the assistant said, and he told me, ‘You’d better never turn one of my horses loose.’”
Romans still remembers how proud he was Bernie Hettel, longtime Churchill steward who was then the paddock judge, made him Groom of the Day when he was 14.
But Romans, like any kid growing up, still had a life away from the racetrack, and it was torture for him getting through school, for reasons beyond his control.
“I went to school a few days a week and would work at the barn when I wasn’t in school,” Romans said. “The last two years of high school I didn’t go until 10 o’clock in the morning, so I’d be out here. In the second grade I was diagnosed as being the most severely dyslexic person they had ever seen. I literally could not read and write very well. I went to special schools, took special classes, and they even tried to change my eyesight so I wouldn’t read everything backward. I couldn’t even walk up steps like a normal person. I had to stop at each step. I had a difficult birth and they think it had something to do with that. I never went to mainstream schools until I started to high school, where I was a good football player.”
It wasn’t until his mother spoke to him about her expectations for him that he finally felt relieved of the pressure that followed him all through school.
“My freshman year, on the first day, my mother made me a deal,” he recalled. “She knew how torturous school was for me. I couldn’t learn. She said, ‘You can’t get good grades. I know it and you know it. You know what you’re going to do in life, and that’s train horses. As long as you get straight A’s in conduct and you graduate high school, I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care if you get all D-minuses and if you bribe the teachers by giving them winners, just do me a favor and graduate.’
“That took all the pressure in the world off me. My brothers both had advanced degrees. One of them became vice president of RJ Reynolds and the other writes TV and movies in Hollywood. I’m the one that’s not educated. I’ve never told that part of my life until recently. For some reason I finally felt like talking about it. When I was a kid I literally would just sit in school. It was like torture for six hours. Whatever they tried to teach me just wouldn’t sink in. My mother told me I was the worst case scenario for the doctors because I was so intelligent, but I was dumb in school. I knew everything that was going on with me and it was absolute torture. My mother said I won’t get good grades but I’ll learn. She told me, ‘You wont know you’re learning, but your brain will soak everything in.’ Every day of my life she told me how smart I was. My mother sacrificed everything she could, probably to the detriment of my other two brothers. I got 90 percent of the parenting. She was going to make sure I had every chance possible.”
Romans’ father’s life was the racetrack, and he tried to ignore his son’s problem.
“My father divorced my mother and was never a big part of our life except around the racetrack,” Romans said. “He would never admit I had a problem. He went to my football games, but he wasn’t there to help me get educated. He traveled all around – to Rockingham and Tampa. My mother would take us in and out of schools and eventually made me stay right here. Then my father wound up settling down here in Louisville, a mile from where we lived. That’s when we started having more of a relationship.”
Romans’ father never sought success as a trainer, and in fact almost seemed afraid of it, and was content to just get along training cheap horses.
“He didn’t want the responsibility and pressure of having stakes horses,” Romans said. “He was just afraid to put his neck out there. He always told me he never wanted the pressure of an expensive horse. He said, ‘I don’t want to have to call a guy and tell him his expensive horse broke down.’ But he was one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet. I wanted to expand the stable and he wouldn’t want to go anywhere. He just wanted to have 15 to 20 claiming horses and he’d hold on to them for a year and bet on them. That was his kind of mentality. Part of it was ego. His philosophy was, ‘If you try 100 percent and fail, then you fail. But if you try 60 percent and fail, then you can say, ‘Well I would have succeeded if I tried harder.’ He died at 59. He actually died at 57, because he had a brain aneurism and was never the same. It was pretty sad because he knew what was going on. He was always a control freak. He controlled everything and everybody around him, and then he winds up sitting in a wheel chair and having somebody push him to the bathroom.
“But when I came in the barn it was totally different. I was home. I had a way with the horses. I could walk the worst horse in the country when I was 10 years old. My parents were divorced, and if my father had a bad horse he couldn’t get on the van he’d come and get me at home to load the horse. I don’t know what it was about horses, but they saved me as a child. The guys who worked for my dad took me in and I always felt at home here. I didn’t have to worry about reading and writing. I could communicate with the horses. Whatever primal instinct we have with horses, we’re connected to them. There’s just something about a horse that connects us to them. I had almost reached the point of being autistic, but I was a different person around the horses. They’ve been good to me and I’d hate to think what my life would have been like without them.”
So, here is Romans, loving the part as villain after upsetting American Pharoah in the Travers. He admires and respects the Triple Crown winner as much as anyone, but he is too competitive by nature to give him a free pass. And he has always had faith in Keen Ice.
You can beat Romans, as American Pharoah did in the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Haskell Invitational. But he’ll keep coming after you if he sees a potential chink in your armor, especially with Keen Ice getting closer each time and improving after each race.
So, now Romans has added a Midsummer Derby to his growing list of accomplishments.
“That was a special day,” he said. “What was so reassuring and made me feel so good was that they cheered us all the way back. It was very sporting of them to appreciate a big effort from a horse, whether it’s American Pharoah or not. I never expected that.
“There’s no doubt American Pharoah is a very good horse, but I saw him when he was 2 for the first work of his life and he was head and shoulders more mature than everybody else. And I think he’s been that way, while I could see my horse changing and kind of catching up with him, and that’s why I kept coming at him. I think American Pharoah ran his race in the Travers, but where was he going to go? Was he really going to move forward (off the Haskell)? I couldn’t see it. We said we wanted to win this race, forget trying to lag for second; we’ve done that already. The way my horse changed after the Haskell I really thought we could win.
“When we galloped out past him in the Haskell, I was watching and American Pharoah never re-engaged us when we got to him. I think he was more spent than people think, because it looked like he won so easily. I got to thinking then, ‘We can get him; he’s vulnerable right now.’ Bob’s a great trainer and he’s got time to step him forward, and who knows what will happen in the Breeders’ Cup. It’ll be interesting to see how it all comes together. But for now, we got the money, and that’s all that matters.”
It’s been a long, sometimes painful, road for Romans, whose mother instilled in him the confidence he needed to strive for success and not be afraid of it, as his father was. Through major victory after major victory, Romans has continued to hammer it into his opponents…don’t ever underestimate him. He has overcome a severe learning disability to follow his course in life. And in his realm, which is fueled by the passion and love for the horse, there is no one who is going to out-train him, outthink him or outsmart him.