The second-place finish of News Pending in Sunday's Fountain of Youth surprised most people, as reflected by his 27-1 odds. But don't count trainer Dale Romans among those, and in fact, if observant handicappers have been paying attention to the Triple Crown trail over the last few years they should have been aware that Romans' under-the-radar 3-year-olds have a knack for striking in big spots.
Do the names Paddy O'Prado and Shackleford ring a bell? Paddy broke his maiden in the grade III Palm Beach Stakes at 7-1 and went on to finish third in the Kentucky Derby at 12-1 in 2010. Shackleford was 69-1 in the Florida Derby when missing by a head last year and was 12-1 when he handed Romans his first classic win in the Preakness. The gist? Don't sleep on Romans' 3-year-olds.
News Pending, by Harlan's Holiday, took four tries to break his maiden, which he did on the Gulfstream turf course in December. He came into the Fountain of Youth off a second-place finish in a 1 1/8-mile turf race on Feb. 5. Romans has liked him for a while now and will give him another chance to make the Derby.
"He didn't surprise me; he's really turned a corner and become a good horse," he said. "He wants to run all day. I think he's a quality racehorse.
"He was a little bit of a late-bloomer, but he's one of those that also needed more distance. It took him a couple races to round into top fitness. But I think he's for real.
"It would probably make sense to stay here for the Florida Derby, but we'll talk it over and nominate everywhere. I think a third-place finish might be enough, depending on how the earnings fall this year, but second would get him in for sure. It depends on the field sizes in all the races. You have Arkansas, Louisiana, and Illinois too. We'll see how they are shaping up around the country."
Of course, Romans' top Derby threat since last year has been Dullahan, owned by Jerry Crawford's Donegal Racing, who also raced Paddy. The Even the Score colt has fallen off the radar of many people by now since he has yet to race this year. But he won the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last fall to give him plenty of Derby earnings and was a solid fourth in the BC Juvenile. Like he did with Paddy, Romans will use the March 11 Palm Beach on turf as his starting point for a Derby run. Kent Desormeaux will ride.
"He's one of those horses that has really never missed a beat," Romans said. "He's been training great. He has enough earnings so he doesn't have to win. We'll get a good race in him, then go to the Blue Grass, and hopefully the Derby.
"I think most of the rules for the Derby over the last 50 years have been thrown out the window in the last 10 years. (The turf/synthetic angle) worked for us with Paddy. It was a little different situation with Paddy; we didn't have a lot of choices. We were just trying to get earnings. This horse showed he could come off synthetics and run well on the Churchill dirt. He came out of the Futurity and ran pretty good in the Breeders' Cup. It just seems like a sensible thing to do with him."
Dullahan has been training at Gulfstream most of the winter. He really stepped it up Feb. 25 when firing a bullet five furlongs on the dirt in :59 1/5.
"We wanted to go a little faster last week; get him blowing a little bit. We'll come back and go easy this week."
Romans will have one, maybe two horses in Saturday's Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. He will definitely run Crawford's homebred Finnegans Wake, a son of Powerscourt. The colt made his last two starts on turf, winning a maiden special weight on Jan. 1 at Gulfstream and finishing a close fourth in an optional claimer Feb. 5.
"I'm hoping he'll run well on dirt," Romans said. "I don't have the same confidence with him as I did with News Pending or Dullahan. But I'm hoping he will take to it. I know he'll run all day. He's always trained well. It just took him a while to come around.
"He'll be a big price (in the Gotham). The whole question is if he takes to the surface. If he does, he'll run well. If he doesn't, he'll be up the track."
Romans is hoping to also get Suns Out Guns Out into the Gotham, but with a large field expected he might not draw in. The son of Empire Maker is still a maiden after four starts.
"He's a nice horse, he's just now getting good," Romans said. "He's another one that wants to run far, we're just running out of time. Like Paddy, I hope he has his breakthrough race when he can get graded money. He'll be on the plane (to New York). If he doesn't get into the Gotham, I'll put him in a maiden race the same day."
Romans said he has one more classic hopeful, and that is Cozzetti, who ran eighth in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood in December and fourth in the Kitten's Joy Stakes on turf Jan. 21 at Gulfstream.
"Cozetti is still a sleeper for me. He trains as well as any of those other horses. He just hasn't mentally put it together in races. It wouldn't surprise me to see him have a breakthrough race in his next one or two. I'm not sure where we're going yet; possibly the Tampa Bay Derby."