LOUISVILLE — His desk as usual was inches deep in paperwork. He and his outfit were shipping out to Gulfstream Park for the winter in less than 24 hours.
But on a crisp November afternoon in the midst of managing the minutia that comes with his profession, trainer Dale Romans paused to look at the best professional year of his life.
It was one thing to be there for the 27 stakes wins, including 20 graded stakes triumphs, his stable racked up in 2012. But in a business that allows for precious little reflection, seeing them chronologically listed on one particular sheet before him gave Romans another chance to absorb their collective magnitude.
"No way could you predict that was going to happen," he said, reclining in the very chair his noted father once sat in. "It's not the numbers, it's the quality of races that are on that list. There are Grade Is and then there are Grade Is... and we own a few of the elite Grade Is this year."
Down to earth as his demeanor and roots may be, elite has become the adjective of choice to describe the Romans operation these days. Even before he notched his ninth Grade I win of 2012 when the popular Shackleford took the Clark Handicap at Churchill in November, Romans' name was already being bandied about as the favorite to earn his first Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer on Jan. 19.
Some 25 years after following his father, the late Jerry Romans, into the training ranks, Dale Romans has become, in the words of his clients, a big-horse conditioner — collecting the top-level scores that define the best of the best in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport.
Though Romans himself doubted whether he could top his 2011 season that saw him saddle his first classic winner — when Shackleford took the Preakness — and notch a Breeders' Cup Mile upset with Court Vision, the career-making wins kept coming for the 46-year-old Louisville native this year. Races like the Grade I Arlington Million (Little Mike), Metropolitan Handicap (Shackleford), Pacific Classic (Dullahan) and Breeders' Cup Turf (Little Mike) were added to his résumé.
Even with his recent 50-pound weight loss, Romans still has a commanding presence around the racetrack. It's not, he claims, because he is doing anything radically different than when his barn was full of claimers rather than potential champions.
The horsemanship and drive? They were always there. It was only when Romans began to wholeheartedly believe he belonged in the lofty ranks that his real success began.
"I think that's the biggest change in my career over the last few years, the confidence to do what I want to do, and not what I think people think I should do," Romans said. "I think that's the problem a lot of trainers run into. They don't trust themselves, or if they do, or they're afraid to be open to criticism. They're afraid to lose."
By his estimation, there has been a Romans in Barn 4 at Churchill Downs for about the last 50 years, beginning when Jerry Romans had his boys alongside him as he carved out a niche as one of the winningest trainers on the Kentucky circuit.
Easy as it was for the local colony to cast Dale in his father's shadow when he started saddling runners on his own in the mid 1980s, Romans was determined to take his knowledge to a level even his dad was hesitant to breach.
"I wonder sometimes what he would have thought because I don't know if he even won a handful of stakes in his career," Romans said of his dad, who passed away in 2000. "He didn't want the pressure. When I started working for him full time, I wanted to boost the stable and he said, 'If a $10,000 horse gets hurt I don't mind calling (the owners), but if a $1,000,000 horse gets hurt, I couldn't make that call.'"
What separates the good from the greats in many competitive situations is not necessarily the ability to make the winning move, but rather the willingness to take on the pressure of the big moments, positive outcome or not.
Bolstered by a support system that took roots before he notched his first winner, Romans has welcomed the opportunity to stand on the proverbial line with the game in the balance and shoot for all he's worth.
"Sending Dullahan to the Pacific Classic or stretching Little Mike out to a 1 ¼-miles — that's something I wouldn't have done 10 years ago because I wouldn't have wanted to open myself up to the criticism if it didn't work," Romans said. "And I don't worry about that anymore."
When Romans began training for owner Ken Ramsey, his ebullient new boss hammered home the fact that he expected all those who answered to him to dream as loftily as he did.
Though that partnership ended after five years in 2006 due to a dispute about finances, their time together validated both Romans's eye for horseflesh and his ability to work a little magic with said subjects. Told at the start to go through the Ramsey barn and choose the horses he liked best, Romans recalls falling for an El Prado colt slated for the OBS April 2-year-olds in training sale and a 3-year-old with a bowed tendon.
Said juvenile failed to meet his reserve at the OBS sale by $5,000 and subsequently developed into current top sire Kitten's Joy, who became Romans's first champion when he earned the 2004 Eclipse Award for champion turf male. That horse with the tendon issues, the ambitiously named Roses in May, was held together by Romans enough to win the 2005 Dubai World Cup and retire with more than $5.4 million in career earnings.
"Ken Ramsey was the turning point in my career because he taught me to think big and that we could fit in those races," Romans said. "And then we proved we could with horses like Kitten's Joy and Roses in May. And once you've done something, it's easier to start thinking you belong at the highest level."
Even when Ramsey pulled his horses from Romans, leaving the trainer with about 25 horses after once housing over 200, Romans's growing reputation helped refill his stalls in about a month.
Longtime clients like Frank Jones Jr., who also counted Jerry Romans as his trainer, never wavered. New owners like Donegal Racing also bought into the Romans system, lured as much by his stone-cold smarts as by the team that was helping him climb higher up the pedestal.
"He likes to pretend otherwise but he is crazy smart," said Jerry Crawford, managing partner of Donegal Racing which owns Dullahan. "I truly think he is a savant in that I don't know anyone else who has the potential to see what he sees (in a horse) from a physical standpoint."
"I think Dale has had the ability from Day One to reach the point that he has today," added Jones, who campaigned multiple Grade I winner Tapitsfly, among the many standouts for Romans this season. "The biggest thing about Dale is he cares about people and he cares about horses. That is reflective in his overall knowledge and the results he gets from them. People appreciate it and have learned to respect his abilities."
The prestige of races in the win photos adorning Romans's Churchill office has increased over the years, but the faces featured have remained largely unchanged.
For more 20 years, former jockey Tammy Fox has been horse racing's Goldie Hawn to Romans' Kurt Russell — his invaluable partner in the shedrow, mother of their two children Bailey and Jake, and undisputed rock behind all that surrounds their life in and outside the racetrack.
"I knew it 22 years ago. That's why I stuck with him all these years," grinned Fox. "He's always had it in him. He was a hard worker, even at a young age when we started dating and stuff. The horses have helped a lot, and the clients, but what a lot of people don't know is he how hard he works. He might get here at 8:30 in the morning, but he's here all day, just deciphering where the horses need to go, the races, all that."
It is Fox who is often aboard Romans's charges in the morning and what her hands and seat feel can determine who runs where as much as any condition book.
If Romans has become infamous for his less than early bird arrivals at the barn, it's because he has an assistant like Baldemar Bahena to trust in. Bahena and Romans began working together under Dale's father decades ago and if there has been a cross word between them in the last 26 years, Romans can't recall it.
"It's a big team, it's not just me," Romans said. "We've all grown up together, age-wise and experience-wise in the business. And we all think on the same page."
They have to keep up with the Romans empire.
In addition to his training career explosion, Romans has also branched out to consigning horses at auction under the Romans Racing & Sales banner, has a 100-stall training facility 30 miles from Churchill and another 105-acre farm property in Lexington for broodmares and foals.
One can also add racing ambassador to Romans' status. While some balk at the media spotlight, Romans has again embraced the good and bad demands that come with being a regular on racing's biggest days — a trait that was most recently honored when he was presented with the 2012 Big Sport of Turfdom Award, which recognizes efforts to work with media and turf publicists to promote the sport.
"I don't mind talking about horse racing to anybody," Romans said. "I think I know it inside and out, front side and back as well as anybody in the game."
As his numbers can attest, there isn't much to argue.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl