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Preakness-winning trainer Romans has partner in family and racing
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Dale Romans and Tammy Fox were in Las Vegas with friends when they were walking in the direction of a wedding chapel.
“I said, ‘Come on, Dale, let’s get married,’ ” Fox recalled. “He literally took off running the other way.”
Some 17 years later, still unwed, Romans and Fox are the unofficial king and queen of the racing world. Their teamwork as trainer and exercise rider was critical in the way Shackleford came into the 136th Preakness, which he captured last Saturday in dramatic fashion over Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.
The Preakness, which was worth about $110,000 to Romans, will not substantially alter the lifestyles of the Louisville couple and their two teenaged children, but it has brought them greater attention than ever before.
On the surface, their union seems a curious one: Romans is built something like an offensive lineman with considerable height and girth, whereas Fox, who competed off and on for 23 years as a jockey before retiring with 236 wins in 2005, is about two feet shorter and probably weighs about one-third as much.
The jockey agent known only as Clarence, a longtime friend, once said about Romans and Fox: “It’s like a St. Bernard being paired up with a Chihuahua.”
Indeed, the couple might make Mutt and Jeff look more like the Bobbsey twins, but they’ve got a good thing going. While Romans, 44, has steadily increased his profile since he won his first race in 1987, Fox, 46, has been the proverbial good woman behind the good man. She is visible to her fellow horsemen at Churchill Downs as someone who breezes many of the top Romans horses, including Shackleford, but, she said, “Mostly all I do is get there after the break every morning, get on a few head, give my input to Dale, and come back home and take care of this big house and whatever the kids have going.”
Three days after the Preakness, while Romans stayed behind in Maryland to attend the horse sales at Timonium, Fox was back in the spacious and tidy home the couple has owned since it was built in the early 1990s on a steep hillside near Iroquois Park in the south end of Louisville. Trophies and framed photographs and other racing memorabilia adorn certain parts of the three-story house, which would assimilate perfectly into the fancier sections of the city.
But Romans has never even considered moving to the more fashionable east end of town. Born and raised as the middle son of three boys raised by the late trainer Jerry Romans, he grew up in the south end and has always been fiercely proud of it. He cut the occasional class at Butler High School in Shively, a blue-collar area just a few miles west of Churchill, to go to the races, where his dad dealt almost exclusively in claiming horses, winning only a handful of stakes during a career that ended shortly before his death in 2000 at age 58.
Fox also is from a racing family, having grown up around horses in New Orleans. Her dad, Billy Fox Sr., was a trainer and jockey who now helps his son, Billy Jr., also a former jockey, with a small chain of Cajun-style restaurants in the Louisville area. Tammy Fox met Romans through her brother.
“Billy told me to come meet this guy,” she said. It was 1989. “Dale had three girlfriends. He kept asking me out, and I said, ‘I will when you get rid of all them others.’ ”
They moved in together in 1991. Their daughter, Bailey, was born in 1993 and recently graduated high school and will attend the University of Dayton in the fall. Their son, Jake, was born in 1995 and will be a high school sophomore in the fall.
Family and racing are easily the two most important things to the couple. Romans doesn’t have many outside pursuits except for the occasional poker game, and he rarely has a drink of alcohol. His father was his mentor and idol, and his older brother, Jerry Jr., is a horse owner whose success with Grade 1 winner Sassy Image has brought the brothers closer. The youngest brother, Bruce, is a screenplay writer and movie producer who lives in California and tries to make it home every year for the Derby.
Romans was so close personally and professionally to his dad that Frank Jones Jr., a longtime client and close friend of the elder Romans, now has a virtually identical role with the son. In 2009, Tapitsfly won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf with Jones as owner-breeder and Romans as trainer.
“It was a day that makes your knees go weak on you,” Jones said. “I’ve known Dale since he was a baby. We’re like family together. When his dad passed away prematurely, it was a seamless move for Dale to take over my horses. What’s happened for Dale, winning the Preakness, is just fantastic.”
Jake Romans and his dad are much like Dale and his dad were. Jake tags along whenever he can, especially at Churchill and during the summers at Saratoga.
“Jake loves the game as much as I do,” Romans said.
In 2006, in the Hennegan brothers’ award-winning documentary “The First Saturday in May,” one of the six Derby hopefuls closely profiled was Sharp Humor, trained by Romans. One of the most memorable scenes in the film involved Jake, then 10. Jake had a fistful of $100 bills after cashing a bet – through an intermediary, of course, since 18 is the minimum wagering age – and since then, he has become something of a racing persona, being interviewed frequently on TVG and elsewhere.
So how much did Jake wager when Shackleford won the Preakness at 12-1?
“I don’t bet when my dad has horses in big races,” he said, somewhat ruefully, during the post-Preakness barn party at Pimlico.
Romans has known major triumphs in racing before. Besides the 2009 BC victory, he also trained an Eclipse Award winner, Kitten’s Joy, the 2004 turf champion, and he won the world’s richest race, the $6 million (now $10 million) Dubai World Cup, in 2005 with Roses in May. He also has sent out the winners of other Grade 1 races and has won or shared eight training titles at Churchill. Into this week, his career totals stood at 1,421 wins from 8,926 starts, with stable earnings of more than $60.6 million.
Romans trained Kitten’s Joy and Roses in May for Ken and Sarah Ramsey but split with them in October 2006 after a dispute over finances. Losing a barnful of Ramsey runners set Romans back for a while, but he has rallied, maintaining longtime clients such as Jones, Mike Bruder, Paul Lichtefeld, Jack Stewart, Mike Tarp, and Kyle Nagel and picking up several new ones such as Ahmed Zayat and Donegal Racing.
Romans, who today has about 100 horses and 50 employees, is not one to arrive at the barn before the crack of dawn to watch his first set of horses train – such details are left to his assistants, primarily his longtime right-hand man, Baldemar Behena. On many mornings, Romans won’t pull up to Barn 4 at Churchill until 8 or 8:30 a.m., managing much of his business by phone throughout the rest of the day while delegating smaller details to his staff.
“It’s the management style that’s worked for me,” he said. “I’m not a D. Wayne Lukas, getting up at 3:30.” Laughing, he adds: “Wayne kind of ruined it for the rest of us.”
Jones said one particular positive trait about Romans is that he really cares.
“He cares about people, and he cares about horses,” Jones said. “I think this has been reflected in his success the last few years, that when you care, you’re rewarded. That really came to fruition Saturday.”
To help work out the inevitable frustrations that come with training a big stable, Romans has a punching bag and treadmill in his finished basement, and he mows his lawn – no small task, considering it’s about an acre on a wicked slant. There are few frustrations these days, however, especially when you’re coming off a win in the Preakness.
“This is what I’ve worked for all my life, to be part of these big races that everybody in the country is watching,” Romans said. “To win one has been just incredible.”
Naturally, the lifelong quest for Romans will be to win the Kentucky Derby. He has had three shots so far, with Sharp Humor, who was 19th in 2006; Paddy O’Prado, third in 2010; and Shackleford, fourth in 2011.
“For a Louisville boy, there couldn’t possibly be anything better,” he said.
For Romans and Fox, the wisecracks and inquiries about the disparity in their physical statures have become old hat. Sometimes, however, things go too far, such as the incident years ago at a Louisville amusement park, where an employee wouldn’t permit Tammy to get on a ride because she didn’t meet the height requirements. Romans became infuriated. “That was ridiculous,” he recalled.
After more than 20 years together, however, they pretty much take all the slights and smirks in stride. They might even get married one day – and then again, they might not.
“It’s all about trust anyway,” Fox said. “Dale will be gone to Florida for months at a time, and I’ll only see him once or twice. This is a tough game we’re in. It’s brutal on marriages and people staying together. What’s a piece of paper or a ring going to do about your trusting each other?”
Fox said Romans has asked her to marry him numerous times since that fateful day in Vegas.
“But I always say no,” she said, grinning. “I tell him he blew his chance.”