The mood within Barn 4 on the Churchill Downs backstretch Saturday morning was contagious.
There were jokes and laughter coming from multiple corners as family members congregated in and around trainer Dale Romans’ office. As members of the local jockey colony and a few media representatives crammed into the shedrow to dodge the rain, even the horses cooling out from their morning exercise went about their business unfazed.
The man at the center of the storm was as loose as any. Brody’s Cause, the multiple Grade I-winning son of Giant’s Causeway, had just smoothly ripped off his final work in advance of Saturday’s 142nd Kentucky Derby and Romans’ mind was at ease. The last major hurdle had been cleared, and all he had to do was keep the horse he calls his best-ever classic contender happy and healthy for seven more days.
It was only when asked if he lets himself dream about making that walk to the winner’s circle the evening of May 7 that Romans’ head began to spin.
“I try not to play it out in my mind, I don’t even want to think about it,” the 49-year-old Louisville native said. “I don’t think you can imagine how big it would be, I don’t think I could imagine how big it would be.”
Romans does not need a Kentucky Derby win to validate his career. His 1,840 career wins and counting, three Breeders’ Cup victories, a triumph in the 2011 Preakness Stakes and the 2012 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer accomplish that.
You have to want the ball at the end of the game, and he convinced me I could take the last shot.
Dale Romans on owner Ken Ramsey
But when discussions arise as to who the best current trainer is that has yet to win a Kentucky Derby, Romans’ name usually crops up in the top five. He has saddled six starters in the first leg of the Triple Crown — five in the last six years — with his best finish coming when Paddy O’Prado (2010) and Dullahan (2012) ran third in their respective outings.
Bold though he can be in his public statements, Romans is not so brash as to think fate has a Kentucky Derby victory out there with his name on it.
“I’m not as confident in (eventually winning the Derby) as everyone around me seems to be. But it would be nice to get a little gold trophy and put that on the resume and put that behind us,” Romans said. “As I’ve said earlier — and I hope he doesn’t take it as a knock if I see him on the golf course this winter — but Dan Marino never won the Super Bowl. And I need to win my Super Bowl.”
Lynn Romans would counter that another trophy won’t do justice to what her son has already achieved.
Dale Romans has openly talked of his severe dyslexia and his struggle with feeling inadequate. If the confidence he flaunts now seems abundant at times, it is because it is a product of one the hardest fought battles of his life.
“If he does (win the Derby) it would be wonderful, and if he doesn’t it doesn’t take away from his other accomplishments as far as I’m concerned,” Lynn Romans said. “Dale has worked hard and accomplished a lot, and I’m just so proud of him. We are very close, have always been.”
He may have grown up beneath the Twin Spires as the son of the late trainer Jerry Romans Sr., but he needed outside help to become a “big-race trainer.” The stress, the strain, the highs and lows that come with racing at the highest level was something his father simply wasn’t willing to have on his plate.
To that end, Romans credits multiple Eclipse Award-winning owner Ken Ramsey with teaching him the art of dreaming big. Among the horses Ramsey gave Romans during their association together were Kitten’s Joy and Roses in May. The former became Romans’ first champion when he earned the 2004 Eclipse Award for champion turf male. The latter would capture the world’s richest race when he prevailed in the 2005 Dubai World Cup.
“My father … he would be willing to tell you he didn’t want that kind of pressure,” Dale Romans said. “I don’t think he felt comfortable, like he was qualified to spend the money it takes to get there and to have the pressure. But Ken Ramsey is the one who gave me the confidence. He’s the first one to tell me I could compete at the highest level and gave me horses that could compete at the highest level. And anybody who knows Ken knows there is no level too high for him.
“One of the most important things in a horse trainer’s career is thinking you can, as much as anything that you do. I didn’t have that luxury, but I had Ken Ramsey come along and push me. You have to want the ball at the end of the game and he convinced me I could take the last shot.”
Every morning, Dale Romans walks into the same barn, sits in the same seat and looks out the window in the office that his father had installed some decades ago. There has been a Romans in Barn 4 on the Churchill Downs backstretch for around 50 years. There has rarely been a feel to it like that one it currently has.
And in that sense, Romans has already won.
“My father never won but more than one or two stakes in his whole career and the Kentucky Derby was … it was never even a thought to run in it,” Romans said. “It was put on such a high pedestal that we never even thought of such a thing. If we were to win it, he would probably be my first thought. If we ever got there … yeah, I wonder what he would think.”
Saturday, May 7, 6:34 p.m. (NBC)