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.