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Kentucky Confidential

After the Derby: Decompression

Trainer Dale Romans had an intense Derby day. The Kentucky native won the Grade 1 Humana Distaff with Sassy Image. He then saddled a slick colt in Shackleford, who finished a gutsy fourth in the Kentucky Derby.

Finally, all that stress, all that buildup, crashed into a heap of buddies, Blue Moon, and brisket at the home of Dale Romans and his wife, Tammy Fox.

“For he’s a jolly good fellow!,” his friends sung, “which nobody can deny!”

“I’m glad everyone could be a part of it,” Romans said. “It was a great weekend. I look forward to it every year. Hopefully we can do it next year.”

“Happy Derby Day!,” yelled the friends.

They passed out cake and sipped bourbon. John Hennegan, one of the filmmakers of the documentary “The First Saturday in May,” and now a close friend of the family, strolled around capturing the night on his camera. There was no music. There was no yelling. The volume on the stereo was low. The night’s breeze brushed over the deck allowing Romans to finally relax.

“Decompress,” Romans said. Shackleford was Romans’ third Derby starter and the one who left the best taste in his mouth. In 2006 Sharp Humor ran “terrible.” In 2010 Paddy O’Prado closed for third but, “I thought we should’ve had second.” And he’s right.

Romans’ phone rang, “This is the owner. It’s the first time I talked to him.”

Romans’ daughter, Bailey, who has been to the Derby all of her 18 years, graduates from high school in early June, and plans on taking the pre-med track at Dayton University in hopes of becoming a dermatologist. For now. She said that could change.

Hennegan sidestepped to film her speaking and Bailey was quick to rib him for leaving most of her footage out of the documentary in favor of her brother Jacob. “More than bitterness,” she said. Once, she even had to snap a picture of her brother, father, and some fans who recognized Jacob and Romans from the movie. “He gave me the camera!,” Bailey said. “I get looked over.”

In the Romans’ kitchen hangs a framed photograph of a two-year-old Bailey on her tip-toes at her father’s barn. A horse craned its neck out and down to the ground. Bailey had two hands on its face and was trying to kiss it on the nose. All the other horses on the shedrow peered and watched almost as if they were jealous.

“I’ve been around it my whole life,” said Bailey. “The best part [of the Derby] is the walkout. The excitement from the crowd. You can’t recreate it. You hear the roar, ‘Dale! Dale! Shackleford! Shackleford!'”

Bailey is unequivocally proud her father because she knows how he started out in this game.

“His father was a trainer,” Bailey said. “He worked at the track and started mucking stalls, grooming, hot walking and made his way through the ranks, never thought he’d have a Derby mount. Now he has a horse in the Derby. It’s an accomplishment. My dad’s won huge races. He won the Dubai World Cup with Roses in May in 2005. But it’s not enough. They’re all great but the one race — scratch all others — would be to win the Derby.”

Which is why they’re all here, enjoying the refreshing May Derby breeze and forgiving weather of the night. The folks here have been tied to the Romans for years, no hangers-on, no cronies, they might as well be camping by a fire in the Australian Outback.

“We come together,” Bailey said. “My dad’s gone six months out of the year and at Derby time he comes home and things like this happen. Everyone’s together: his brother from California, his uncle from North Carolina, he’s the one who owns Sassy’s Image.”

Sassy Image sprung a 16-1 upset and, “We kept it in the family,” Bailey said. “My dad trains her, my mom rides her (in the mornings) and my uncle owns her.”

Archie, the family bulldog, scampered by, prompting Bailey to add, “He loves me and hates my brother.”

Then she looked around at all the people, the family, what the Derby and the grind have delivered, “I cherish these moments,” she said.

So too did Kyle Nagel, a longtime friend, who went from owning just a handful of horses with Romans to owning 32 seemingly overnight.

Once, at Saratoga, they ran a claimer named Super Forbes and won, back when beginnings were clothed in anonymity and when $10,000 claiming races were every bit as big as Grade 1s.

“Back then,” said Nagel, “it was a big party. It was all about being together, us, friends and family and raising our kids together. It was like we won the Kentucky Derby for Dale. It was so hard. We go on to win two, three, four races. I really believe that’s when Dale blossomed. He has a great eye for horses.”

“This couldn’t happen to better people,” Nagel said. “They are real racing people. This is a racing family, good-hearted, real people. Not Hollywood, not sexy, what they do is good and they’re good at what they do. He’s just a regular dude. I still remember Dale and the family at Saratoga.”

Jeff Cundiff, Romans’ neighbor, sat at the kitchen counter swirling red wine in a glass, and recalled earlier in the night when Hennegan showed both him and Romans video from right after the Derby.

Winning trainer Graham Motion bumped into Romans in the tunnel and was disoriented. He’d just won the Derby with Animal Kingdom, had tears in his eyes, had no idea where he was.

“Come this way, come this way,” Romans told Motion. Romans pointed out to the track, out to that sliver of earth that Animal Kingdom conquered. “Now, go get your horse.”

Cundiff said, “In my mind that’s called humility, it all boils down to humility. He’s all about taking care of other people. ‘Go get your horse.’ That is awesome.”

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Author PhotoBrendan O'Meara is a contributor to Horse Race Insider where he blogs at The Carryover 2.0. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year" (SUNY Press 2011). His work has appeared in the Paulick Report, The Blood-Horse, Brevity, SN Review, and The Good Men Project. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter. More by  ›