05/03/2012 1:17PM

2012 Kentucky Derby: Romans very much his own man

Barbara D. Livingston
Dale Romans shoots for his first Derby victory Saturday, when he sends Dullahan.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – At some point, the little boy grows up and establishes his own identity, his own family, his own mark on the world. Dale Romans doesn’t mind being known as the kid who grew up in the south end of Louisville tagging along with his daddy to the races at Churchill Downs, but he is far more interested in being recognized as a highly accomplished professional horse trainer who long ago left his childhood behind.

“We’ve had a Dubai World Cup winner come out of this barn, a Preakness winner, two Breeders’ Cup winners,” said Romans, 45. “I don’t know what more it takes to talk about that and maybe leave all the stuff about Butler High School alone.”

Indeed, when Romans walks over Saturday with a Kentucky Derby horse for the third straight year, and the fourth time since 2006, it will be as one of the more successful trainers in North America today. Dullahan represents arguably his best chance yet to win the Run for the Roses. Dullahan, at 8-1 on the Churchill morning line, most likely will be sent away at lower odds than Romans’s previous Derby runners: Sharp Humor, who finished 19th at 30-1 in 2006; Paddy O’Prado, third at 12-1 in 2010; and Shackleford, fourth at 23-1 in 2011.

Some in Louisville will always see him as the protégé of his father, the late Jerry Romans, who raised a family of five children when employed full-time at a local food-processing plant while also running a stable occupied largely by claiming horses. But Romans has built an impressive racing empire of more than 100 active runners and regularly campaigns on several major fronts, with his best horses typically racing in Kentucky in the spring and fall, Saratoga in the summer, and Gulfstream Park in the winter. By managing multiple strings of horses while also keeping layups and babies on a spacious Kentucky farm he purchased several years ago, his life has become all horses, all the time. It’s fortuitous that his life partner, Tammy Fox, also is an exercise rider who helps with the innumerable details involved with running the stable, and that his teenaged children, Bailey and Jake, genuinely enjoy being at the races when they aren’t involved in their school activities.

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“I think winning the Derby would mean the most for Dale because of the kids and what it would mean to them,” Fox said.

On a recent morning during Derby week, Romans’s office in Barn 4 in the Churchill stable area would have been much better served with a revolving door and a telephone operator. Within one 15-minute span, Romans, seated at his desk, never stopped multi-tasking, looking at his cell phone as calls went to voicemail and text messages dinged away and having in-person conversations of varying lengths with a state veterinarian, two fellow trainers, a clocker, his administrative assistant, his assistant trainer, and an elderly gentleman who dropped off six huge tubes of sausage.

“This chaos isn’t just Derby week,” Romans said. “It’s every day.”

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Romans typically arrives much later to the barn than other trainers, usually about 8:30 a.m., a habit for which he makes no apologies. To the contrary: Success cannot be argued with, and he has collected the trophies, the training titles, and the monetary rewards to augment his side of that argument. Since saddling his first winner in February 1987, Romans has sent out the winners of more than 1,500 races for stable earnings of nearly $68 million. The most memorable wins came with Roses In May in the 2005 Dubai World Cup, Shackleford in the 2011 Preakness, Tapitsfly in the 2009 BC Juvenile Fillies Turf, and Court Vision in the 2011 BC Mile.

“The way we operate works for me and my clients, and in the end that’s all that really matters,” he said.

Romans said one of the major turning points in his career came nearly two decades ago, when he took six horses of moderate ability to Saratoga instead of staying at Churchill to ship to Ellis Park or Arlington.

“I won three races and picked up some people’s heads,” he said. “It got me noticed by some owners that wouldn’t have known about me. Going to Saratoga is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve gone 19 years now.”

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In those many ventures away from his home Kentucky circuit, Romans learned a lot from Hall of Fame trainers such as Woody Stephens, Allen Jerkens, and Shug McGaughey, Fox said.

“One summer when he was young, he worked for Woody Stephens when Woody had all those good horses,” she said. “Dale still talks about that. He’s also spent a lot of time observing and bouncing things off ‘The Chief,’ ” referring to Jerkens, “and he’s always paid attention to things that Shug does.”

Dullahan is a big, strong, striking chestnut by Even the Score out of the mare Mining My Own, which makes him a half-brother to the 2009 Derby winner, Mine That Bird. Dullahan is owned by the Donegal Racing partnership headed by Iowa attorney Jerry Crawford and will be ridden by Kent Desormeaux. It’s the same team that got a big Derby thrill two years ago, when Paddy O’Prado challenged Super Saver in the stretch run, only to be nipped in the final strides for second by Ice Box.

Romans cited three qualities that make Dullahan a special horse: “He wants to run all day, he can run on any surface, and he’s extremely athletic with a turn of foot.”

“He showed that athleticism in the Blue Grass when they turned for home, and he shot through a tight hole when the opportunity was there,” Romans said, referring to Dullahan’s 1 1/4-length win April 14 at Keeneland, a race that stamped him as one of the favorites for Derby 138. “I like the way he’s training, I like the way he looks, and I like how this Derby seems to shape up to his late kick with all the speed in it. Hopefully, Kent can work out the right trip and we’ll make some history.”

Romans said he wants badly to win the Derby, “not because I’m from Louisville and grew up right here at Churchill Downs.”

“The Derby is a race that everybody in the world in racing wants to win,” he said. “If you’re in the horse business, the Derby is the race you want to win the most. That’s why I want to win it, and not just because I happen to be from here. I’m like every other horse trainer in that regard.”