This article appears in the April 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, visit loumag.com .
The past two years that trainer Dale Romans has started a horse in the Kentucky Derby, he and his family have hosted a small after-party at their home in south Louisville. It’s a relaxed affair — homemade brisket, cold beer, horse-racing stories into the wee hours — the close to a long day powered on adrenaline.
“You know, when you come into a stranger’s home, especially one of prominence, it could be an intimidating situation,” says John Scheinman, a freelance turf writer. “But this couldn’t have felt any more natural than just going over to one of the neighbors’ houses.”
For Romans, the party is a time to de-compress from months of expectations and stress leading up to the Derby, especially the intense final two weeks at Churchill Downs. Guests include aunts, uncles, horse owners, friends, neighbors and even the odd member of the press. The party sort of plans itself as family and friends are eager to celebrate Romans’ accomplishment of simply making it in the Derby.
In 2010, when Romans’ colt Paddy O’Prado threaded the Derby field to emerge within contention as the horses turned for home, but was unable to catch ultimate winner Calvin Borel on Super Saver, the trainer had his hopes dashed.
In last year’s Derby, as the 19-horse field rounded the final turn and the bright white blaze on Shackleford’s nose emerged ahead of the pack, the crowd roared, thinking that the roses might go to the hometown favorite — Romans. In the final 200 yards, though, Shackleford was passed by winner Animal Kingdom and eventually finished fourth. One might expect Romans to skip the after-party in the disappointment of that kind of near-miss, but he understands that finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby is worth celebrating too.
That Derby night, as party guests gathered inside and outside the house, Romans sat comfortably in lounge pants on the living-room couch after taking a call from Shackleford’s owners, Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge, who had just agreed to send the Forestry colt to the Preakness Stakes. As the party wound down and guests began to leave, latecomers showed up and Romans graciously invited them in. The new guests joined him around the patio table outside on the deck where Romans engagingly continued to discuss the day’s ups and downs.
Like most people born and raised in Louisville, Romans fell in love with the Kentucky Derby at an early age. Once the son of the late trainer Jerry Romans became aware of his father’s profession, he took an interest in horses, soon realizing he wanted to become a trainer as well. As a teen, Romans often found his way to the racetrack and his father’s barn after school. He mucked stalls and hot-walked horses, learning the business from the ground up.
“The first Derby I went to was in ’77, with Seattle Slew, when I was 10 years old,” says Romans in a telephone interview from Gulfstream Park in Florida, where he will stable until spring. “I guess that’s when Derby fever really started, and I haven’t missed a Derby since.”
Thirty years later, winning the Kentucky Derby is the goal for Romans, 45, and, after his recent successes in the Triple Crown — Paddy O’Prado’s third-place Derby finish followed in a few weeks by First Dude’s second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont, plus Shackleford’s gritty Derby effort that led to a redemptive victory in the Preakness — he seems to be getting closer.
Romans has trained a number of Derby hopefuls that have left their mark on this year’s Derby trail, including colts News Pending, Finnegan’s Wake and the highly regarded Dullahan, a half brother to 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird. Romans recognizes how hard it is to find the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May, although he does know the way.
Last year, the documentarian John Hennegan was filming Romans and his family as they left the clubhouse immediately following Shackleford’s loss. Hennegan captured a moment one might expect to see in a scripted scene when, in the hallway of the second floor, Romans ran into winning trainer Graham Motion. Looking bewildered and unfamiliar with the Churchill Downs layout, Motion could not find his way to the winner’s circle. Without missing a beat, Romans congratulated his fellow trainer and told Motion to follow him — through the hallway, down the stairs and out to the winner’s circle. “Now go get your horse,” Romans instructed Motion.
“This is the race (Romans) wants to win and . . . it looks like he’s going to win it at the top of the stretch,” says Hennegan, who first met Romans when he filmed his 2006 documentary The First Saturday in May. “I saw it in his eyes. You know, you think for a split second that, ‘Holy cow, he’s going to win the Kentucky Derby,’ and even though there is a sense that you’re a little bit bummed out, he’s still able to realize that his friend had just won it and be man enough to treat him correctly.”
With a training career that now spans 26 years and more than 9,400 starters and 1,500 trips to the winner’s circle, it’s only over the last few years that Romans has made a name for himself as one of the country’s top trainers. He’s earned more than $66 million in purse money throughout his career and, with more than $1.2 million earned in the first quarter of this year, is ranked among North America’s top 10 trainers in earnings.
“I’ve done this a long time and, like Wayne Lukas always says, you have to earn the right to train top horses,” Romans says. “I think that I’m finally earning the right.”
It started at the age of 18, when Romans, a graduate of Louisville’s Butler High School, obtained his license as a trainer and entered the family business. He worked as an assistant trainer under his father and briefly under Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens before going out on his own. Romans won his first race in 1987 at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., with a horse he bought for $1,500. Four years later he won his first stakes race, the Florence Stakes at Turfway.
Over the years, Romans has increased his stable size and his victory count. In 2004, he won six graded stakes with Kitten’s Joy, who was later honored as Champion Male Turf Horse of 2004. In 2005, Romans won the world’s richest horse race, the $6 Million Dubai World Cup, with Roses in May, who had finished second in the ’04 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Romans earned his first Breeders’ Cup win in 2009 with Tapitsfly in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. He won his second last year when, at odds of 64-1, Court Vision took the Breeders’ Cup Mile, becoming the second-longest-priced winner in Breeders’ Cup history.
After Romans’ father died in 2000 at the age of 58, owner Frank L. Jones Jr., who, with Jerry Romans’ help, became Churchill Downs’ leading owner during several meets in the early ’90s, sent his horses to the ambitious son. Like his father, Dale started in low-level claiming races.
“There’s some great horse trainers out that have trained in claiming horses that don’t get the opportunities that I’ve been fortunate enough to get,” Romans explains. “I don’t know why they don’t, and I just feel fortunate to have had the owners come to me and give me the horses that we could develop into stake horses.”
It was while he was working for his father in 1989 that the husky 6-foot-3 Romans, who grew up in Shively, met the petite 4-foot-6 Tammy Fox, a native of New Orleans. Fox, a former jockey, was instructed by her brother, a jockey who had ridden for Romans, to stop by the trainer’s barn when she got to Churchill Downs. That meeting sparked a relationship between the two that has lasted 22 years.
“We kind of balance each other off,” says Fox, who continues to assist Romans as an advisor and exercise rider. “He’s very witty. He’s funny. The jokes that he can come up with really quickly, he’s just a fun person to be around.”
The couple share a home in south Louisville where they are raising two teenage children. Their daughter, Bailey, is a freshman at the University of Dayton in Ohio and their son, Jacob, is a sophomore at St. Xavier High School in Louisville.
Although the family doesn’t often have the opportunity to take traditional family vacations, they work around the racing circuit to spend time together as much as possible. They all assembled last summer in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., during Saratoga Race Course’s boutique meet. Bailey spent the summer working in the New York Racing Association’s press office at Saratoga. No doubt Jacob, who was the memorable 10-year-old shown in Hennegan’s documentary unrolling stacks of cash he’d won on the ponies, was busy handicapping the races and picking winners.
Back in 2006, when Hennegan and Romans originally hooked up, the director and his brother were looking for trainers to star in The First Saturday in May. The film followed six trainers and their horses along the path to the Kentucky Derby. It was a combination of Romans’ sense of humor and overall personality that persuaded Hennegan to showcase him as a representative of the game.
“The more I learned about him — in being a lifelong horseman, working for his dad, and spending the summers in an office in Ellis Park with no air-conditioning when he was a teenager,” says Hennegan, “I was just like, win, lose, or draw, whatever happens to his horses, this is just the guy that we feel the rest of the world would like and find interesting.”
Derby Day starts early for Romans, and if he’s lucky enough to have a starter in this year’s race, it will again. His routine — he’s had three starters in the Derby since 2006 — doesn’t change. He arrives at the racetrack in the morning to tend to his horses, making sure all are healthy and ready for the day’s races. (There are, after all, 12 other races on the Derby Day race card.) When he returns home a few hours later, he puts on his suit and gathers the 30 or so family members and close friends who have assembled at his house to attend the Derby. He distributes tickets and assigns transportation before the group heads off to the racetrack.
But not even his fancy duds can pull Romans out of his typical role of regular guy. “I don’t know how Todd Pletcher and Wayne Lukas do it,” Romans said last year after the Preakness. “They look so pristine all the time. I walk to my car and I’m sweating and wrinkled. (My friend) told me I was the best he’d ever seen at making an expensive suit look cheap.”
Most of his guests watch the races from the clubhouse, but Romans splits his time between the clubhouse and his backside barn, where he caters in barbecue for the workers. As race time approaches, he and a small group of the original 30 — his brothers, Fox and the kids, the horse owners, and one or two other close friends — make their way to the backside to escort their Derby contender to the paddock. The half-mile walk from the backside barn to the racetrack is lined with Derby fans cheering on the horses and their connections.
“The walkover is probably the coolest thing about the Derby that not many people even know about,” Romans says. “It’s like the tension starts to build, and you can tell everybody’s excited with each horse.”
From there, fate and fitness take over. Win or lose, after Derby 138, Romans will have his after-party. And his after-party tradition. Typically on the Sunday after Derby, the Romans family and whoever has remained at their house will make a quick trip to the track, followed by breakfast and maybe a round of golf.
“We drive around through the infield just to see how messy it is and watch them clean it up, which is always kind of fun,” Romans says. “You see some interesting things every year.”
But things could change if the trainer Louisville calls its own finds his own way to the winner’s circle on this first Saturday in May.
“I would say if we won the Derby, it might get a little out of hand,” Romans says. “Every year you’ll read the article that so-and-so won the Kentucky Derby and he was right back at the barn at 4:30 the next morning. That ain’t going to be me. I’ll show up in a day or two.”