Dale Romans and his older brother Jerry were eating breakfast Saturday morning at their hotel in Cross Keys, trying to keep their mind off of the 136th running of the Preakness, when the two of them -- for reasons they can't quite explain -- started to think about the beginning of their career as trainers, close to 25 years ago.
The two brothers began to chuckle, and with good reason. The horses they worked all those years ago when they were living at Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky, were not exactly the stuff dreams are made of. In fact, they were pretty awful as far as thoroughbreds go.
"We had a lot of horses, and some were the cheapest of the cheap," Romans said. "It just shows that if you keep doing it long enough, and you get the right horses in your hands, anybody can do it."
Romans certainly had the right horse on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, as Shackleford charged ahead of the pack early in the Preakness, and then held off Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom by a half-length at the wire for an impressive victory in the second leg of the Triple Crown. Astrology finished third.
The last horse to win all three American classics was Affirmed in 1978, and so there was some measure of disappointment on the track after the race as it sunk in that yet another year will go by without a super horse. But what may have emerged is a budding rivalry between two quality thoroughbreds. Both are hoping to stage a rematch at Belmont in three weeks. On Saturday, a huge crowd of 107,398 -- the 6th largest in the history of the Preakness -- roared as Animal Kingdom made a late charge down the stretch, but Shackleford and jockey Jesus Castanon didn't waver, and they gave Romans his first career win in an American classic.
Shackleford, who went off at 12-1 odds, paid 27.20 for the win. A $2 trifecta was worth $1,401. Shackleford's victory, in addition to the $600,000 purse, also earned a $550,000 bonus for his connections as a part of a promotion inaugurated this year by MI Developments to encourage horses who ran in Derby prep races to run in the Preakness.
Romans has won big races before in his career, including the richest race in the world, the $6 million Dubai World Cup in 2005. But he had tears in his eyes Saturday as he talked about what it meant to him to win a Triple Crown race.
"There is nothing like winning at home in America," Romans said. "The Dubai World Cup was nice, the money was good, but we blew that. This is much better. This puts you in the history books."
Romans grew up around the Churchill Downs as the son of a horse trainer, but it was was a working class life, not a glamorous one. His father, Jerry Romans Sr., won only a few stakes races his entire career. Romans figured he'd be lucky if he had a similar life.
"We never thought we could get these kind of horses," Romans said. "It wasn't even a dream. We just wanted to make a living in the horse business in some way, and it's been phenomenal. ... 25 years ago, nobody thought I'd sit up here and talk about winning a classic race."
Animal Kingdom's performance was hard for Maryland trainer Graham Motion to put in context minutes after the race. He stood in the tunnel, his arms folded across his chest, smiling politely but looking completely exhausted. He was proud of the way his horse ran, and at the same time, he was also a little crushed.
"If it wasn't for the fact that you're trying to win the Triple Crown, I would have been tickled a bit," Motion said.
Animal Kingdom was trying to become the 12th horse in the last 33 years to follow up a Derby win by also capturing the Preakness, but he just didn't have enough kick in the end. Jockey John Velazquez said he though the horse was bothered a bit by all the mud kicked in his face. Motion agreed that might have been a factor. It was only Animal Kingdom's second career start on dirt.
"It's tough to come that close," Motion said. "But he ran a huge race. I kind of thought for an instant he might get there, but I wasn't sure. ... Shoot, we won the Derby and we just got beat in the Preakness. I would love to win a Triple Crown, as much for me as for anybody else. There is so much pressure to do that because it would be good for the game. But it wasn't meant to be."
Barry Irwin, who runs the Team Valor partnership that owns Animal Kingdom, said he expects his horse to run in Belmont Stakes as long as he's healthy. Motion seemed to be of similar mind.
"I would certainly be all for it," Motion said.
Shackleford, who is co-owned by natural gas magnates Michael Lauffer and W.D. Cubbedge, was coming off a strong fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, but he didn't exactly look like a horse who feels comfortable in front of big crowds prior to the race. He was acting up in the paddock, and his nerves seemed to get worse during the Preakness post parade. Shackleford was kicking and bucking and sweating, and he didn't really calm down until six crewman finally shoved him into the No. 5 starting gate.
Romans, however, wasn't particularly concerned. "He's been like that before all his races," he said.
Castanon, who grew up riding horses for his father in Mexico City, actually held up Shackleford a bit after he ran the first 1/2 mile in a blistering 46 seconds. Roman said afterward he thought that was the key to the race. The closers -- Animal Kingdom and fourth-place finisher Dialed In -- still made their late charge, but a sprinter like Shackleford had enough energy to hold them off.
Castanon, whose father passed away in November after being on dialysis for three years, got choked up as he tried to describe his emotions after the race.
"When I came to the wire, he just came to me," Castanon said of his father, with whom he shares a name. "I know he was up there watching me."
Romans experienced some similar emotions. His father, Jerry Romans Sr., was a true horse racing lifer, the kind of anonymous, working-class trainer who conditioned horses more for the love of the game than the money. He tried to pass that along to his sons before he passed away in 2000.
"I think he'd be blown away," Romans said, when asked what his father would think about his Preakness victory. "I don't think he won but two or three stakes his entire career, but it was a good enough to raise us all. I was fortunate enough to grow up around the track. He started racing late in life. I think being able to grow up around the barn probably gave me a different perspective than he had. I think he would have been proud and blown away."