Going into his eighth Kentucky Derby, trainer Dale Romans says he’s perhaps more relaxed than he’s ever been.
Part of that is the Louisville native has a good horse in J Boys Echo, breaking from the No. 13 post and one of six horses listed as a fourth-best 20-1 shot in what many consider a wide-open Run for the Roses.
But there’s also the perspective gained from a harrowing car accident heading home from last year’s Derby that sent Romans and four of his seven passengers to the hospital.
“You have to enjoy the moment,” Romans said Thursday outside Barn 4, which has carried the Romans family name for more than 50 years. “I told myself after the wreck, I’m going to have to start enjoying things a little bit more and quit stressing so much. And maybe I have.”
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Romans said each of the passengers suffered lingering effects from the wreck with one victim having to stay in the hospital for five weeks. He didn’t feel right himself until the end of last summer, suffering some kidney problems in addition to bruised ribs. They are all healthy now and most will be in attendance this weekend, he said.
“I was going to ask them if they wanted to go skydiving Sunday,” Romans joked.
I told myself after the wreck, I’m going to have to start enjoying things a little bit more and quit stressing so much. And maybe I have.
Romans would settle for the thrill of winning the Derby.
J Boys Echo, a bay colt owned by Albaugh Family Stables, won the Gotham Stakes on March 4 impressively, but disappointed his last time out in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. He broke oddly out of the gate and didn’t fire until late, finishing fourth.
“It was just a strange race for us and McCraken,” Romans said. “They went really slow early, we got bumped around, and we had to sprint home fast. Draw a line through that race. We still ran a credible fourth in a $1 million (Grade 2 stakes). Horses have run fourth and come back and won at Derby before.”
McCraken, the co-second choice at 5-1 Saturday, finished third, just ahead of Romans’ horse in the Blue Grass. Romans believes the trials at Keeneland might have better prepared “J Boy” for the Derby.
“You want to win the Blue Grass, but it you’re not going to win it, getting that kind of experience has to help in the Derby,” he said. “Because you’re going to get bumped around in 20 horses unless you’re in the lead all the way. What I liked about it is he fought back and he still tried to get there.”
The son of the late Churchill-based trainer Jerry Romans knows just making the Derby is difficult. His closest runs in seven previous tries over a 32-year career have been third-place finishes by Paddy O’Prado (2010) and Dullahan (2012).
“You think about the enormity of getting here,” Romans said. “There’s 30,000 horses born. You figure 15,000 of them are colts every year. Twenty of them line up. So, just to get here year after year is a phenomenal feat.
“But I’m ready to go ahead and win one.”
A persistent rain dampened Churchill Downs’ Thurby festival activities, but it was more of a light mist during the 8:30-8:45 a.m. window for Derby and Oaks entrants.
Several horses avoided the rain by taking to the track early. They included Todd Pletcher’s Always Dreaming, who has been taken out as soon as the track opened at 5:45 a.m. all week, and Battle of Midway.
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said the threat of more rain over the next two days wouldn’t bother Battle of Midway, who won his first race on a wet track at Santa Anita Park in January.
“We’ve won on an off track and I think we’re one of the few horses that has run on one so that maybe doesn’t concern us as much as some people,” Hollendorfer said.
Girvin takes stage
Trainer Joe Sharp broke from his 6 a.m. routine Thursday with wife and assistant Rosie Napravnik taking Girvin out during the prime 8:30 a.m. slot.
“He’s coming in great and doing very well,” Sharp said. “I was very happy with how he trained today. The shoes he has on now are the shoes he’s going to race in and they’re polyflex glue-on shoes. Today was our first day training in those, so we’re glad to see he responded well to them and he should move forward.”
Girvin has been recovering from a quarter crack spotted April 18 and remained at Keeneland until Tuesday. The Louisiana Derby winner jogged a mile then galloped another mile without any signs of stress.
“He feels excellent … ,” Napravnik said. “I think there was a difference with the shoe. I definitely felt a difference, and he’s really doing well.”
Lookin’ at trouble?
Also out early Thursday was trainer Steve Asmussen’s Lookin At Lee, who drew the dreaded No. 1 post position for Saturday’s race.
“I’m still disappointed that Lee got the one hole, but if there’s any horse that came overcome that post, it’s him,” Asmussen said of his 30-1 shot. “And, he’s got the right rider for the circumstance. Corey (Lanerie) knows this track as well as any of them and has been the leading rider here 12 times.”
Lanerie, will have the mount on Lookin At Lee for the first time.
“I know he’ll be coming late, which is really great for the mile and a quarter distance,” Lanerie said. “Especially after watching the Arkansas Derby, the mile and a quarter is going to be perfect for him. I’m excited to ride him. We just need a good, good trip.”
Three to watch in Oaks
Paradise Woods is the filly to beat at the Kentucky Oaks.
She is the 5-2 favorite for Friday’s race for 3-year-old fillies at Churchill Downs.
She has had back-to-back runaway victories, including an 11-length romp in the Santa Anita Oaks. She was also second in her debut at the California track. Paradise Woods will start from the No. 4 post position.
The second choice at 9-2 is Miss Sky Warrior. She has won five of six starts, with four straight graded stakes triumphs. Farrell has five wins and a third and is the 5-1 choice along with Abel Tasman.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Kentucky Derby week
At Churchill Downs in Louisville
6:12 p.m.: Kentucky Oaks (NBC Sports Network)
6:46 p.m.: Kentucky Derby (NBC-18)