Louisville-born Dale Romans has pulled from many sources through the years while crafting his philosophy and style training Thoroughbreds, and has enjoyed enormous success over the past decade or so.
But he has never enjoyed a year quite like 2012, and more than four months remain on the calendar.
Romans celebrated two milestones last week. On Tuesday, he celebrated his 46th birthday and, on Saturday, Romans saddled Little Mike to score an upset victory in the Grade I Arlington Million at Chicago’s Arlington Park.
The Million, run at 1 ¼ miles on the grass, has been one of America’s top turf tests since it was introduced back in 1981, when a $1 million purse was truly spectacular. The legendary John Henry, piloted by the equally legendary Bill Shoemaker, took its inaugural running when the young Romans was only 15.
Saturday’s front-running romp was the first victory in the Arlington Million for Romans, who also scored a surprise victory with Little Mike in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Kentucky Derby Day.
Little Mike’s exploits in Chicago provide the latest evidence that Romans is compiling a body of work in 2012 that should have him in the discussion at the year of the season for the Eclipse Award that goes to America’s leading trainer.
Romans has not been a serious part of that debate despite fabulous success in recent years at his home base at Churchill Downs, where he now trails only Hall of Famer Bill Mott in the category of all-time victories, and other major tracks in the East, Southeast and Midwest.
And that conversation is a long way from his days of learning about Thoroughbreds on the Churchill Downs backside with his late father, trainer Jerry Romans. The elder Romans enjoyed success on the Kentucky racing circuit, but his primary focus was on claiming horses, with occasional success in allowance races and minor stakes events.
After notching his first victory in a Triple Crown race in 2011 with Shackleford and earning a Breeders’ Cup upset when longshot Court Vision won the Mile, Romans’ 2012 has been even more memorable. The Million was added to a roster of impressive wins on the year that includes triumphs by Shackleford in Belmont Park’s prestigious Grade I Metropolitan Handicap and the Churchill Downs on Derby Day; a victory Tapitsfly, owned and bred by longtime client Frank Jones Jr., in the Grade I Just A Game for fillies and mares on turf at Belmont Park; a win in Keeneland’s Grade I Toyota Blue Grass by Donegal Racing’s Dullahan, a half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird finished a charging third to I’ll Have Another in this year’s “Run for the Roses”; and a string of turf triumphs by the 3-year-old Silver Max, who finished third as the favorite in last Saturday’s Grade I Secretariat on the Arlington grass to snap a six-race win streak.
More chances for 2012 glory for Romans come this weekend when Dullahan tackles older foes over synthetic Polytrack in the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar. That 3-year-old star loves the dirt surface at Churchill Downs, but struggles over the natural footing elsewhere. But his two career wins – in the Toyota Blue Grass and Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity, both Grade I races – came over the Keeneland version of that synthetic surface.
That run of success at racing’s highest level is a good distance from the days when the younger Romans absorbed the basics of training Thoroughbreds from his father, whom he lists as his greatest influence. He also benefited from the wealth of training knowledge collected from working around Churchill Downs veterans like Angel Montano and Don Winfree, whose barns are located just steps away from the one that housed Jerry Romans’ stable.
Regardless of what happens between now and New Year’s Eve, it’s been a fantastic year for a Kentucky product who, by training standards, is still a very young man. For fans of Kentucky racing, watching Romans’ success beyond Kentucky’s borders has been one of the joys of the summer.
Another reason for summer smiles has been strong showings from Kentucky-based horses in big events at other U.S. tracks. Along with Little Mike, wins by Fort Larned in the Grade I Whitney, Wise Dan’s romp in the Fourstardave, and the upset of champion Hansen by Macho Macho in the West Virginia Derby have provided ample evidence that, despite the dangers posed by an ever-shrinking horse population and field size issues at Kentucky tracks, considerable talent remains in the state’s equine ranks.
Then there’s Lady of Shamrock, the John Shirreffs-trained winner of last week’s Del Mar Oaks. The rising 3-year-olkd filly star launched her career last fall in Kentucky for trainer Ronny Werner before a private purchase sent her to Southern California.
Look for another Kentucky-based horse to step forward this weekend. Neck ‘n Neck is a late-developing 3-year-old who has a wonderful opportunity to win Saturday’s Grade I Travers Stakes, the historic “Midsummer Derby” at Saratoga.
Like Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another, he’s a son of the beautifully-bred Flower Alley and is coming off a good runner-up finish to resurgent Kentucky Derby also-ran Alpha in the Jim Dandy, Saratoga’s main Travers prep. His chances were compromised that day when Alpha got away to an uncontested lead, but the winner of Churchill Downs’ Matt Winn Stakes should enjoy a better set-up in the Travers.
Neck ‘n Neck is trained by Ian Wilkes, who sent Fort Larned out to win the Whitney earlier in the Saratoga meet. Wilkes’ summer recalls a remarkable 2007 Saratoga summer for his mentor, two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Carl Nafzger, who notched a pair of stakes wins at the famed Spa when Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense took the Travers and Lady Joanne won the Alabama.
Wilkes still has to win that second one, of course. But Neck ‘n Neck appears to be ready for a career-best effort. And, if you like to wager a dollar or two, the price should be right.
REED PALMER PHOTOGRAPHY | Churchill Downs