02/18/2010 1:00AM

Derby hopes inspire Romans to take a risk


Dale Romans has been witness to at least one young turf horse making a seamless transition to dirt.

Four years ago, Barbaro was rising to prominence in south Florida when he brought a supposed turf-slanted pedigree and outstanding turf form to the Triple Crown trail; he was by Dynaformer and had started his career with three straight turf victories.

In the most hard-fought race of his career - this was before he won the Kentucky Derby while still undefeated, then broke down in the Preakness - Barbaro won the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park by a half-length over Sharp Humor, trained by Romans.

"Barbaro made the switch over to dirt like it was nothing," said Romans.

Romans is trying to take a page out of that book by sending out Lost Aptitude in the Grade 2, $250,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes on Saturday at Gulfstream in Hallandale Beach, Fla. By lining up against the likes of Buddy's Saint and Jackson Bend, two of the most highly regarded prospects on the 2010 Derby trail, Lost Aptitude could well be facing a baptism by fire Saturday. To date, he has raced exclusively on grass, having won 3 of 6 starts while emerging as potentially one of the best turf runners in his class, but it remains to be seen whether he can be competitive at such a high level on dirt.

"That's exactly what we're looking to find out about Saturday," said Romans. "He's a horse that doesn't have a true turf pedigree, and he trains very well on the dirt. I started him out on turf last summer at Ellis Park because it was the most opportune place to run him and get him around two turns quicker. He kept running so well on the grass that I just left him on it."

Lost Aptitude is by Aptitude, the 2000 Kentucky Derby runner-up who was sired by A.P. Indy, and was produced by Mystery Code, by Lost Code. After finishing fourth in his Sept. 5 career debut in an Ellis sprint, Lost Aptitude won a maiden race at Kentucky Downs, then was second in a Keeneland allowance. He then dominated an allowance and an overnight stakes at the Churchill Downs meet in November before being beaten a head as the odds-on favorite in the on Jan. 1 at Calder.

Lost Aptitude is co-owned in a 50-50 partnership by two longtime Romans clients, Frank Jones Jr. and Mike Bruder, both of whom will travel to Gulfstream for the race Saturday. Romans signed a $60,000 sales ticket for the colt at the 2008 Keeneland September yearling sales before putting Jones and Bruder together. Both owners are successful businessmen who have been active for many years in horsemen's organizations and racing politics, and both have a keen appreciation for what it would mean to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby.

"That's what we're trying to do, get to the Derby," said Bruder, a lifelong Evansville, Ind., resident who has retired from the coin-machine business. "Last fall at Churchill, we talked about how we had to give this colt a chance on the dirt, just so we'd know what he could do. And this is it."

"We're optimistic, but it's kind of tempered," said Jones, who owns a swimming-pool supply company in his hometown of Louisville. As a longtime horse owner whose biggest victory came last fall with Tapitsfly in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, Jones said having a legitimate Derby contender "would be my biggest thrill in racing, even considering how great winning a Breeders' Cup race was. It'd sure make for a very special situation for all of us."

Lost Aptitude has tended to run on or near the lead in his races. Romans said he expects jockey Rajiv Maragh to "just let him run right out of there."

"He's a fast horse that has a high cruising speed and keeps on going," Romans said. "He's been carrying that speed pretty good."

Hoping to get a Hall of Famer's opinion on Lost Aptitude, Romans had retired jockey Angel Cordero Jr. get aboard the colt for a Feb. 8 workout at Gulfstream that went unrecorded by the clockers.

"Angel said he was really impressed that, when he asked him, the colt accelerated," said Romans.

In early 2004, Kitten's Joy was developing into a top turf horse for Romans and eventually was named the Eclipse turf champion that year.

"The thing about Lost Aptitude is that he really does train well on the dirt," said Romans. "Kitten's Joy showed us he wasn't a dirt horse, so we didn't even try him. I think this horse is different, and he at least deserves a chance."

Romans has had one Derby starter since he began training horses in 1986, and that was Sharp Humor, who finished 19th in Barbaro's 2006 Derby romp and was limited to two more races because of a knee injury. For Romans and the owners, neither of whom have had a Derby starter, the risk-reward ratio of giving the Triple Crown trail a try with an unproven dirt horse is in their favor, even if turns out to be a one-and-done deal.

"The upside if he does run well on the dirt is huge, and the downside of what we'd be missing is not much," said Romans. "There aren't that many big turf races for 3-year-olds at this time of year, so if he doesn't run any good, we can always just go back to the grass and jump right back in with those horses."

Said Jones: "The horse might not run any good, but if he does, I'd have to think it'd put us right in the Derby picture. And that'd make us all pretty happy."