(Originally published in the May 28, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter
All American grade school children grow up hearing the story. Anyone with enough drive and ambition can one day be President of the United States.
The same lesson applies to trainers who aspire to win Thoroughbred racing’s toughest, most prestigious races. For Dale Romans, those most important races are the American Triple Crown, which is saying something considering Romans has already won the world’s richest race, the $6 million Emirates Airline Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) in 2005 with Roses in May.
The World Cup is great, but Romans said his crowning achievement to date came May 21 when he won his first American classic in his eighth attempt, with Shackleford in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
“There is nothing like winning at home in America,” Romans said during an interview that aired on Courier-Journal.com. “This race puts you in the history books. Horse racing is built around these three races. That’s why everyone is buying horses because they want to get to these three races.”
Standing at the cupola in the Preakness winner’s circle was certainly a place Romans never imagined he would be when he got his trainer’s license at age 18 in 1986.
“From where we started, no one would have believed we would be competing in these kinds of races,” he said the afternoon of May 22 in between answering several hundred e-mails and text messages he’d received over the previous 18 hours. “I never thought training a stakes horse was a realistic goal starting out—much less a classic winner. Anybody that sticks to what their goals are and works hard at it, anyone can do it.”
Romans, a Louisville, Ky., native, grew up on the backside of Churchill Downs. He was walking hots at around 10 years old and making $50 per day rubbing horses. His father, Jerry, a successful trainer for nearly 35 years, was the one who gave Romans his foundation as a conditioner. Where father and son differed was on the level each felt comfortable competing. Of Jerry Romans’ 5,407 lifetime starters, 71% were claimers. That was his niche—handicapping, claiming, and the art of putting modest horses in the right spot to win. Dale Romans embraced those skills and then raised the bar for himself; he wanted top-notch stakes horses in his barn.
Five years would pass before Romans won his first black-type race with Morning Punch in the 1991 Florence Stakes at Turfway Park. In 1996 Romans had his first graded stakes winner in Victor Avenue, who won the Fall Highweight Handicap (gr. II) and the Gravesend Handicap (gr. III), both at Aqueduct. Then came 2004 when his barn exploded with talent. Romans had seven stakes winners with five different owners. The stars were grade I winners Roses in May and Kitten’s Joy, both owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, and grade II winner Halory Leigh, owned by partners Jerry Crawford, Matt Gannon, and Charlie Grask.
Romans entered a horse in his first classic in the 2005 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) with Nolan’s Cat, who came from dead last after a mile to finish third at odds of 20-1. In 2006 he had a horse in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) for the first time with Sharp Humor, who had won the Swale Stakes (gr. II) and finished second in the Florida Derby (gr. I) by a half-length to Barbaro. Sharp Humor finished a disappointing 19th.
He kept knocking on the door, coming back in the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Paddy O’Prado, who finished third, and then taking both First Dude and Paddy O’Prado to the Preakness where they finished second and sixth, respectively.
“Going into these races, you just have to have a horse that is doing absolutely perfect, no hitches in the training, or you are not going to get anything,” Romans said. Besides having the right horse, the key to success, he learned, is to stay consistent and train the horse as if a classic race were like any other.
Everything finally came together for him with Shackle-ford. The son of Forestry led the Kentucky Derby field this year for a mile before fading to finish fourth but came back with a dynamite performance in the Preakness, holding off favorite and Derby winner Animal Kingdom.
“It puts your whole career in perspective,” Romans said. “This is what we’ve been working toward every morning of every day.”
There is one more set of pegs sitting above the bar Romans has steadily raised since 1986. It’s Romans’ equivalent of showing up for work in the Oval Office.
“Nothing beats the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “Hopefully, one day we’ll get one of those, too.”