Romans’ Sizzling Year Gets Hotter



After writing about Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans’ ongoing really big year a week ago, Dullahan took things up a notch for Romans on Sunday.

The half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird has now won two more Grade I races than his sibling after rolling through the stretch under Joel Rosario to catch Game On Dude and take Sunday’s Pacific Classic at Del Mar in course-record time.

The victory by the Romans-trained Dullahan came in his first outing against older, more mature horses – the first test of serious quality for any three-year-old Thoroughbred. And the Grade I triumph added to Romans’ career-best season that now includes a pair of Grade I triumphs for Dullahan, who won the Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland before his strong third-place run in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands over his home track; a courageous victory in Belmont’s famed Metropolitan Handicap by 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford; a victory by Tapitsfly for Louisville owner/breeder Frank Jones Jr. in the Grade I Just A Game; and a pair of Grade I grass triumphs by Little Mike in the recent Arlington Million and Churchill Downs’ Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Kentucky Derby Day.

With a potent stable with horses in good health, there’s no reason to think that Romans will not add more wins to his Grade I column during the remaining four months of the year.

Dullahan doubters were quick to note that all three of his Grade I victories have come over synthetic Polytrack courses, with the third being his 2011 win in the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. But a more accurate description of Dullahan is versatile, as Jerry Crawford, the Des Moines, Iowa-based managing partner of the Donegal Stable partnership that owns the colt, correctly noted after Sunday’s win.

“People are going to insist that this is a synthetic horse because he has won three Grade Is on synthetic,” Crawford said. “But there’s no one else in the country that has won three Grade Is on any surface and placed in graded stakes on the turf and finished third in the Kentucky Derby.

“I would respectfully submit that the question with Dullahan is not what surface can he run on, but what surface can’t he run on?”

Although they are very different in terms of their physical tools and their individual development, Dullahan reminds me of Wise Dan, another versatile star based in Kentucky.

Trainer Charlie Lopresti’s gelding won the Grade I Clark Handicap in an absolute romp last fall at Churchill Downs and was nosed by Ron the Greek following a difficult journey in the Stephen Foster over the same track in June.  Wise Dan also has Grade III wins over Polytrack in Keeneland’s Fayette and Ben Ali, and a pair of Grade II wins on the turf in Churchill Downs’ Firecracker Handicap and Saratoga’s recent Fourstardave.

Royal Delta

Royal Delta

Wise Dan is training brilliantly for a planned start in the Woodbine Mile, where he could notch his first Grade I triumph on turf.

Dullahan detractors point to the colt’s poor efforts on dirt in the Belmont Stakes, where he was seventh as the favorite to Union Rags, and the Haskell Invitational, in which he failed to threaten the victorious Paynter while running fifth.

But he has run well enough on the Churchill Downs dirt to run a hard-luck third in the Derby to I’ll Have Another – the clear-cut frontrunner for three-year-old championship honors – and fourth last fall to champion Hansen in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Sure, he failed to fire over Belmont’s famed “Big Sandy” – Dullahan joins a long list of good horses that had trouble handling that course – and clearly had a bad day at Monmouth. He continues to deserve the benefit of the doubt on dirt.

In Breeders’ Cup

The Pacific Classic win earned Dullahan a guaranteed spot in the 14-horse starting gate for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 4 over dirt at Santa Anita.  That’s now the ultimate goal for Dullahan and a win there would put him in position to overhaul the retired I’ll Have Another for championship honors in the three-year-old division. A win in that race and another at the end of November in the Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare over his home track at Churchill Downs could put him in line for really big things.

He has much work to do, but Dullahan’s win over older rivals in the Pacific Classic provides both the colt and his trainer with opportunities to take a shot at big goals in the last four months of racing in 2012.

A dead heat!

Dullahan’s victory at Del Mar restored some shine to an injury-depleted three-year-old crop that was on display in Saturday’s Travers at Saratoga, which ended in an historic dead-heat victory by favored Alpha and the Ken McPeek-trained longshot Gold Ticket. It was the first even finish in the “Mid-Summer Derby” since 1874.

I had forecast a big run by Neck n’ Neck in the Travers, but that never materialized and his finished a flat sixth. Alpha has rebounded nicely from a disappointing Kentucky Derby run and has settled into a spot just below the top stars of the crop. It will be interesting to see if Golden Ticket follows his Travers run for McPeek with a similar effort against top company, but it’s impossible to assess Sunday’s race until we see him again.

My biggest disappointment of the weekend was the defeat of Royal Delta by Love and Pride in Saratoga’s Personal Ensign. I’ve written before that I thought trainer Bill Mott’s regally-bred filly had a chance to be the fourth consecutive female to earn “Horse of the Year” honors, but she needed to run the table against members of her gender and then beat males at some point to complete that task.

It could be strongly argued that Royal Delta was only the third-best filly in Sunday’s race as It’s Tricky stumbled twice coming out of the gate but recovered to threaten late before finally running out of gas in a third-place run. She ran a tremendous race.

Royal Delta could still earn an Eclipse Award for top older mare, but the road to that award looks tougher now than it did a week ago.

For Kentucky racing fans, the Labor Day weekend provides the last opportunity to visit Ellis Park for live racing in 2012. The summer meet at the Pea Patch closes with Monday’s holiday program. I’m hoping to make my near-annual pilgrimage over the weekend, but have a slaw dog for me – just in case I don’t make it.

Photos by REED PALMER PHOTOGRAPHY | Churchill Downs