04/28/2005 11:00PM

Romans's stable slowly returning to normal

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Tom Meeker, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc., opens the Nasdaq stock market in New York.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - No trainer has been more prominent at the last few Churchill Downs spring meets than Dale Romans. From 2000 to 2003, Romans won or tied for every training title, and last spring, he finished a close second to Steve Asmussen in a down-to-the-wire battle.

But when the 2005 spring meet began Saturday, Romans was barely on the Churchill radar screen. Under normal circumstances, Romans would have had as many as five or six runners for each program on opening weekend, but he had no scheduled starters Saturday and just two on Sunday.

"My horses have missed anywhere from three to six weeks of training," said Romans. "I'm just now getting them fit and sharp again. Hopefully by the middle of the meet we'll be hitting on all cylinders again."

The reason for the disruption has been widely publicized in recent weeks: The Romans stable was waylaid by the strangles outbreak that threw a major scare into the racing industry, leading some fellow trainers to sharply criticize Romans for his role in the controversy. Romans typically manages 100 or more horses at a time, and most of them have been affected either by direct contact with the disease or by quarantine restrictions.

In fact, while most of his stable has been cleared to resume training, Romans still has 12 horses in south Florida at the Palm Meadows training center, where his horses are the only ones remaining following the normal spring exodus of Northern-based stables.

Romans said he has been reluctant to discuss the strangles case through the media partly because it is such a complicated story. He is adamant, however, in insisting that he strictly adhered to directions "every single step of the way" from veterinarians and track officials as soon as he became aware last December that strangles had been diagnosed in one of his horses at Churchill.

Romans said that because strangles, a highly contagious bacterial infection, does not have to be reported to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, he believes blame might ultimately be placed on how the system fails to adequately prevent such a dangerous disease from spreading.

Rusty Ford, a representative of the KDA's state veterinarian's office, said Friday that an epidemiological investigation of the strangles outbreak "is still in progress in an attempt to identify the initial source of the infection and how the thing progressed."

Meanwhile, Roses in May, the 5-year-old horse who won the $6 million Dubai World Cup in late March for Romans and owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, has not been involved in the strangles brouhaha. Roses in May has been at a Lexington, Ky., equine clinic, for swimming and hyperbaric oxygen treatments for the last month or so. He is scheduled to return soon to Romans at Churchill.

Farewell to Trackside

Kentucky Derby 131 marks the end of the Trackside simulcast annex as local horseplayers have known it for nearly 15 years.

The state-of-the-art simulcast facility that was built on the second floor of the new Churchill clubhouse effectively replaces Trackside, an aging facility that long has served as a home away from home for thousands of Louisville-area horseplayers. Churchill plans to open Trackside as an overflow betting facility on Kentucky Oaks and Derby days and on days that Churchill hosts the Breeders' Cup, but otherwise, the facility is being shuttered for everyday use.

Trackside had several incarnations. It originated in the late 1960's as the Louisville Downs Standardbred track, folded, then became the Sports Spectrum when Churchill bought it in the early 1990's. Eventually renamed Trackside, its primary uses have been as a simulcasting, training, and stabling facility, but through the years, it also was used to host the Derby post-position draw, company shareholders' meetings, a Breeders' Cup fanfest, a 1995 horse auction, and other events.

Training and stabling remain unaffected by the end of daily simulcast activity.

Oaks adds pair of outsiders

Two longshots have been added to the prospective field for the 131st Oaks, the filly showcase that will be run Friday before an expected crowd of about 100,000. Those new candidates are Rugula, runner-up in the Fantasy Stakes, and Gallant Secret, runner-up in the Bourbonette Breeders' Cup.

Rugula, with Greta Kuntzweiler aboard, breezed five furlongs in a bullet 1:00.60 over a sloppy track Friday morning.

At least eight fillies are likely for the Oaks. With riders, they are Dance Away Capote, Ramon Dominguez; Gallant Secret, Mike Smith; In the Gold, Rafael Bejarano; Memorette, Kent Desormeaux; Rugula, Kuntzweiler; Runway Model, Patrick Valenzuela; Sis City, Edgar Prado; and Summerly, Jerry Bailey.

Frankel will leave some at Churchill

Trainer Bobby Frankel usually ships all his horses out of Kentucky within 48 hours after the running of the Derby. This year, Frankel will not be in such a hurry to get out of town.

A combination of circumstances has prompted Frankel to leave at least 15 horses at Churchill Downs for the spring meet. Assistant Chad Brown will run the shed.

Frankel said he has had a hard time getting races to fill for his horses in Southern California. Frankel, like all big outfits in New York, has had his stalls cut from 40 to 36.

"I told [NYRA racing secretary] Mike Lakow I could come up there with 70 horses ready to run,'' Frankel said. "[In California], they aren't filling those good races. I've got to split them up. I'm going to leave some nice horses here. You break down all these horses training and training without running.

"In California, you've got to keep them on tilt, because when the race goes you've got to be ready because you may not get another opportunity."

* A $53,300, second-level turf allowance occupies the ninth-race feature spot on Sunday's card. Bayani, Southern, Sheer Luck, and Overnightsensation are part of a full and competitive field of fillies and mares. In two other allowances, Bohemian Lady, with Gary Stevens riding for Todd Pletcher, figures as a heavy favorite in race 2, and No Theatrics looms a solid choice in race 4.

* Tom Meeker, chief executive officer of Churchill Downs Inc., was the ceremonial opener of the Nasdaq stock market Friday morning in New York. Meeker was accompanied by several other CDI partners and associates at the Times Square MarketSite.

- additional reporting by David Grening