Updated on 09/17/2011 6:48PM

Two stars lift Romans into elite ranks


GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Some of Dale Romans's first memories are of being around horses, and, despite a brief detour working in a restaurant, training is all he has ever wanted to do.

"I bussed tables for about a month when I was 16," Romans said. "It made me realize that was real work."

Romans followed his late father, Jerry, into the sport. But while his father was satisfied training a handful of moderate horses and setting up the occasional betting coup, Romans has sought to play the game on a higher level. Romans, 38, has been a stalwart at Churchill Downs and Keeneland in recent years, but not until this year has he hit the jackpot with world-class stakes horses. And he has two of them.

Romans trains Kitten's Joy and Roses in May, who have a chance to sweep the final two Breeders' Cup races on Oct. 30 here at Lone Star Park. Kitten's Joy will be favored in the $2 million Turf, while Roses in May will be one of the top choices in the $4 million Classic. They are a combined 11-for-12 this year.

Much is riding on their performances. Both could lock up year-end championships and become top candidates for Horse of the Year with a victory. And both Romans and owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey can bolster their Eclipse Award chances with banner days.

If all this is overwhelming, Romans is hardly showing it. He's the kind of guy you would hate to play poker against, because he has no tells. The madness of next week has yet to foment, and though Breeders' Cup week does not compare to the demands of having the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Romans seems to be holding up well under the pressure.

"It's pretty rewarding," Romans said at Lone Star Park. "It's been a long road with a lot of cheaper horses. Everyone wants to have better horses. Hopefully this leads to more better horses."

Romans attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1977, when he was 11, and has not missed one since. Of the five Romans children, he was the one who most wanted to make racing his life.

"I've never thought of anything else. It's basically all I've ever done," Romans said.

He never went to college. "I went to the University of Beulah Park," Romans said, referring to where his dad sent him with a bunch of second-string horses. "I think he was trying to run me back to school."

It didn't work.

"When my dad started, he walked in off the street," Romans said. "He claimed a horse with some friends. They couldn't pay the trainer, so he took care of the horse himself. I had a lot easier entry than he did."

Jerry Romans died in November 2000, two years after suffering a stroke. He was best known for putting over the occasional betting coup with a horse who outran his recent form.

The most notorious incident in Jerry Romans's career happened in the first race on Kentucky Derby Day, 1988. A horse named Blairwood, with two dreadful starts the previous year for a different trainer in another state, appeared as a first-time starter named Briarwood - and won, paying $71. An investigation that involved the FBI was conducted, which determined that a series of errors - including the horse's name being misspelled by a clerk on the entry card - contributed to the mix-up.

Jerry Romans was slapped with a 10-month suspension by the Kentucky Racing Commission for lack of oversight, even though he insisted it was an honest error. Jerry Romans did, however, win a libel judgment against a Kentucky Racing Commission member who put out a press release suggesting otherwise.

Dale Romans recalls the incident in great detail, and also insists it was an honest mistake. But he chuckles when it is suggested his dad did like to cash a bet.

"Yes, and he took some of those stories to his grave," Romans said.

"He didn't want the pressure of having top horses. He just wanted to make a living."

With the exception of briefly working for Stanley Hough and Woody Stephens - "I just wanted to see what other people do," he said - Romans worked for his father for years. Romans won the Turfway Park training title in 1988 with a string of his father's horses, and since has won titles at Churchill Downs and Keeneland. He now trains 65 horses, about 30 of whom are owned by the Ramseys.

Romans's circuit now includes summers in Saratoga and winters in Florida, stops that the elite trainers of the East Coast make. It is a club to which Romans might be the newest member, but, as his work with Kitten's Joy and Roses in May proves, he belongs.