Romans' Rise - By Eric Mitchell

 (Originally published in the May 28, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter


By Eric Mitchell

 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.”

7 Comments

Leave a Comment:

breeze10

Mr. Mitchell:  Very nice article !  We certainly can not say the man is not motivated and motivation is something everyone/everything, including the industry, needs.  I hope his motivation pays off and his dreams come true.  I have believed, since day 1, that Mr. Romans has a very special horse....Paddy was too and First Dude?..I was on his bandwagon since day 1, too.  So,,,Keep trying, Mr. Romans...you'll get to "That" winners circle, too!

24 May 2011 10:41 AM
Fran Loszynski

I love to hear when a trainer or jockey, hot-walked a horse or took care of their stalls, before the big time.-getting right down to the standard of "racehorse" It doesn't need much explaining when their horses run well. These are trainers and jockeys that live, sleep, and breathe horseracing. Tim Ritchey and Chuck Reid are two and the reason we're not having a Triple Crown Winner is it will be one of Afleet Alex's young.  Good luck Mr. Romans in the Belmont you know your horse, he knows you and it sure looks like he knows where the finish line is.

24 May 2011 2:30 PM
SACK THE SECRATARY

Just one comment this was a great shot for a triple crown winner,after AK won the KD.I dont see any triple crown winners anytime soon.The breeding industry has to turn the corner in the horses that are born in the US,maybe AK,s derby win has started to have an effect on that.

24 May 2011 3:27 PM
Bspec1

Mr.Romans, I knew that Shackleford was going to win one of the triple crown months ago, keep trying and you will have a derby win next year.

25 May 2011 10:40 AM
Danette

Ever since I saw Dale Romans in the movie 'The First Saturday in May' I was intrigued by him. He's funny but honest and obviously hard working at what he does - has been all his life. You can't help but wish him all the luck in the world.

25 May 2011 1:13 PM
Bellwether

WITH ALL DEW RESPECT...LOUIS QUATORZE HAS SENT US A ROCKET!!!...STAND BUY BUY...ty...

27 May 2011 2:58 AM
Bellwether

ps...DALE LOOKS LIKE THE REEL DEAL!!!...WE WANT "THE PREAKNE$$" THE MOST...ALL THREE N ONE YEAR IS A "PIPE DREAM"...BUT ONE NEVER NEVER NOES???...ty...

27 May 2011 3:06 AM

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