Dale Romans began by stating the obvious.
It is a massive achievement in itself for a trainer to lead a horse over for a start in a Triple Crown race. During the walkover, anything is still possible, not the least of which is the chance to reward the support system that helped create the moment of hope and awe.
All of that will swirl around Romans when his graded stakes-placed charge Cherry Wine heads to the paddock for the 141st Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday. The main objective will be trying to upend unbeaten Kentucky Derby hero Nyquist and the rest of the field. If successful, Romans will give the man he calls his second father a career pinnacle.
“To take him over for a race like this is big, but to win one would be huge,” Romans said.
There is no way for Romans to overstate what it would mean to give Frank Jones Jr., co-owner of Cherry Wine, a classic victory. In the five decades Jones has owned race horses, he has only employed two trainers — one being the late Jerry Romans, father of Dale, the other, the 49-year-old conditioner he has watched develop into one of the nation’s elite.
Given that Jones has known the younger Romans since he was a baby, their relationship goes far beyond any typical owner-trainer pairing. When Jerry Romans passed away in 2000 at age 58, there was a void to be filled both personally and professionally with Dale Romans taking over the Jones runners and the latter stepping in as an emotional anchor.
In 2009, they reached an upper echelon together when Romans saddled Jones’ homebred filly and eventual multiple Grade I-winner Tapitsfly to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. Co-bred by Jones in partnership with William Pacella and Frank Shoop, the improving Cherry Wine offers Romans another opportunity to honor Jones for his uncommon loyalty.
“He is like a second father to me, he was around when I was born,” Romans, who saddled Shackleford to victory in the 2011 Preakness, said of Jones. “There are very few people who are special like him who have two trainers their entire 50 years of owning horses — that’s my father and me. It was huge to win my first Breeders’ Cup race for him because he started out with my father, with claiming horses not really knowing what they were doing. Now, he’s become a mainstay in Kentucky racing.”
Cherry Wine is a fitting flag bearer of the Jones-Romans partnership as the gray colt is like family in his own right.
Romans conditioned Cherry Wine’s sire (Paddy O’Prado), dam (C. S. Royce) and granddam (Sweeping Story) with C. S. Royce being co-owned by Jones. Cherry Wine was born on Romans’ farm and has given his trainer some similar vibes that his Grade I-winning father provided.
After losing his first four starts, including three on the turf, Cherry Wine broke his maiden like a horse making up for lost chances when he won by 9 1/4 lengths going 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs on Nov. 28. He followed that up with an equally dazzling last-to-first, 6-length win over the same distance at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 9 prior to finishing fourth during his graded-stakes debut in the Grade II Rebel Stakes on March 19.
“I thought he always had the mind for this, he just couldn’t put it all together,” said Romans, who is still recovering from pulled rib muscles he suffered in a car accident the night of the Kentucky Derby that landed three of his passengers in the hospital. “He’s such an efficient mover that I’ve always liked him. When he won by open lengths here at Churchill and then he went down and won by open lengths at Gulfstream, you have to be talented to do those things. And he was. The mother and him were both born at my farm so he’s like a son to me.”
Cherry Wine flashed classic potential when he ran third to stablemate Brody’s Cause in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 9. Getting beat a head by My Man Sam for second, however, cost Cherry Wine the valuable 40 qualifying points that would have locked him into the Kentucky Derby field.
The fresh legs the gray colt now takes to Baltimore will be needed if he is to have the ultimate breakthrough in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. If form holds, Romans expects to see Nyquist heading to Belmont Park on June 11 with a Triple Crown on the line. But all sorts of circumstances make up the sport of horse racing, which is why Romans wouldn’t be entirely shocked if his charge pulls off the stunner.
“The only way we beat the champion is if the two weeks takes its toll on him,” Romans said. “And we know that. But you have to be there in case it does. If everyone runs true to form, nobody beats (Nyquist). But that could have been said for a lot of horses over history and, especially if it comes up a little wet or something, my horse loves an off track.”
Jones bristles when asked to talk up his horses, saying he leaves that part to his Eclipse Award-winning trainer. What Jones emphasizes is how deep the emotional layers will run this weekend.
“It would really be a unique accomplishment for us (to win the Preakness together),” Jones said. “I was around when Dale was born and he’s been my adopted son ever since. We had Tapitsfly who won the Breeders’ Cup, that made my knees turn to jelly. This time it might make it so I couldn’t walk.”
6:18 p.m. at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore (NBC-18)