I was off the job last week when one of the stories of the year in horse racing around here took place. Dale Romans won the Preakness Stakes with Shackleford.
It hasn’t been that long ago that I was writing a feature story about Romans going into his first Kentucky Derby, in 2006.
Romans grew up at the track, virtually. His dad, Jerry, trained horses and, because there wasn’t a lot of money, he had his sons help him. Dale led his first winner to the the Churchill Downs track at age 12. Think about that. Age 12.
The backside was his homeroom. Jerry Romans chose his barn, No. 4, along the Fourth Street edge of the Churchill backside, because it was close to the track kitchen. Dale spent mornings before school at the track, then ducked out early from classes at Butler High School to catch a bus back to the races.
“As long as I was passing, they didn’t care,” he told me for that 2006 story. “They knew where I was. For me, I never thought of doing anything else. It never crossed my mind to do anything else, nor could I. I spent my childhood learning how to do this. This was school, right here.”
This past Saturday, Romans celebrated a graduation of sorts. A year ago before he saddled two horses in the Preakness, Dale told me that, “There are some holes in the resume. . . . Now that we’re getting into the Triple Crown races, we’d like to win some.”
Romans had won the Dubai World Cup. He had won a Breeders’ Cup race. And he is closing in on the greatest goal, the Kentucky Derby. But winning the Preakness certainly adds another line to that long resume that began with those bus rides down Dixie Highway toward the track.
It’s always good in sports to watch guys win from the ground up. Romans not only grew up in the game, and at the track, but studied it. The winter after graduating from high school, Romans went to his version of graduate school — four months in Florida working for Woody Stephens. He came back with a bunch of ideas, but also with the confidence that he’d been doing the right things already.
“The big thing it showed me was that the top horses aren’t a lot different from cheap horses,” Romans said. “They all have the same problems. I learned a lot from him in a short time. But I also learned that it wasn’t so different from what we were doing. The big thing was to keep working.”
Of the 211 starters Romans has sent out this year, 43 percent have finished in the money. He’s knocking on the Derby’s door. He finished third with Paddy O’Prado last year, and Shackleford ran well in a fourth-place finish this year. Romans also won the Grade I Humana Distaff on Derby Day, impressively, with Sassy Image, who is owned by his brother Jerry.
Both brothers grew up immersed in the business. Jerry noted to me some time back that Dale’s gift was being able to improve and expand on what he was doing: “I don’t think Dad would ever have dreamed things would be this big,” Jerry said. “But that was always Dale’s strength, I think. He was never afraid to think big.”
Just two weeks earlier, when trainer Graham Motion was momentarily dazed after his Animal Kingdom scored an upset win in the Kentucky Derby, Romans had taken him by the arm and showed him a quicker way to the track to get his horse, and on to the winner’s circle. On Saturday, it was his turn.
Winning the Kentucky Derby would be an ultimate accomplishment for Romans. But that the first time he found the winner’s circle in a Triple Crown race it was away from Churchill Downs is useful in its own way.
When Romans won a piece of his first training title back in 2000, they looked at him a little differently at his hometown track. Same thing happened after the Dubai win, and the Breeders’ Cup.
“I’ve watched a lot of trainers in this gap back here and learned a lot from all of them,” Romans says.
I imagine these days, quite a few of them are studying him. This past Saturday, without question, was another graduation day.