Last year, the documentarian John Hennegan was filming Romans and his family as they left the clubhouse immediately following Shackleford’s loss. Hennegan captured a moment one might expect to see in a scripted scene when, in the hallway of the second floor, Romans ran into winning trainer Graham Motion. Looking bewildered and unfamiliar with the Churchill Downs layout, Motion could not find his way to the winner’s circle. Without missing a beat, Romans congratulated his fellow trainer and told Motion to follow him — through the hallway, down the stairs and out to the winner’s circle. “Now go get your horse,” Romans instructed Motion.
“This is the race (Romans) wants to win and . . . it looks like he’s going to win it at the top of the stretch,” says Hennegan, who first met Romans when he filmed his 2006 documentary The First Saturday in May. “I saw it in his eyes. You know, you think for a split second that, ‘Holy cow, he’s going to win the Kentucky Derby,’ and even though there is a sense that you’re a little bit bummed out, he’s still able to realize that his friend had just won it and be man enough to treat him correctly.”
With a training career that now spans 26 years and more than 9,400 starters and 1,500 trips to the winner’s circle, it’s only over the last few years that Romans has made a name for himself as one of the country’s top trainers. He’s earned more than $66 million in purse money throughout his career and, with more than $1.2 million earned in the first quarter of this year, is ranked among North America’s top 10 trainers in earnings.
“I’ve done this a long time and, like Wayne Lukas always says, you have to earn the right to train top horses,” Romans says. “I think that I’m finally earning the right.”
It started at the age of 18, when Romans, a graduate of Louisville’s Butler High School, obtained his license as a trainer and entered the family business. He worked as an assistant trainer under his father and briefly under Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens before going out on his own. Romans won his first race in 1987 at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., with a horse he bought for $1,500. Four years later he won his first stakes race, the Florence Stakes at Turfway.
Over the years, Romans has increased his stable size and his victory count. In 2004, he won six graded stakes with Kitten’s Joy, who was later honored as Champion Male Turf Horse of 2004. In 2005, Romans won the world’s richest horse race, the $6 Million Dubai World Cup, with Roses in May, who had finished second in the ’04 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Romans earned his first Breeders’ Cup win in 2009 with Tapitsfly in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. He won his second last year when, at odds of 64-1, Court Vision took the Breeders’ Cup Mile, becoming the second-longest-priced winner in Breeders’ Cup history.
After Romans’ father died in 2000 at the age of 58, owner Frank L. Jones Jr., who, with Jerry Romans’ help, became Churchill Downs’ leading owner during several meets in the early ’90s, sent his horses to the ambitious son. Like his father, Dale started in low-level claiming races.
“There’s some great horse trainers out that have trained in claiming horses that don’t get the opportunities that I’ve been fortunate enough to get,” Romans explains. “I don’t know why they don’t, and I just feel fortunate to have had the owners come to me and give me the horses that we could develop into stake horses.”
It was while he was working for his father in 1989 that the husky 6-foot-3 Romans, who grew up in Shively, met the petite 4-foot-6 Tammy Fox, a native of New Orleans. Fox, a former jockey, was instructed by her brother, a jockey who had ridden for Romans, to stop by the trainer’s barn when she got to Churchill Downs. That meeting sparked a relationship between the two that has lasted 22 years.
“We kind of balance each other off,” says Fox, who continues to assist Romans as an advisor and exercise rider. “He’s very witty. He’s funny. The jokes that he can come up with really quickly, he’s just a fun person to be around.”
The couple share a home in south Louisville where they are raising two teenage children. Their daughter, Bailey, is a freshman at the University of Dayton in Ohio and their son, Jacob, is a sophomore at St. Xavier High School in Louisville.