by Richard Rosenblatt
Don’t let the big guy fool you.
That guy would be crafty trainer Dale Romans, who somehow, some way, seems to come up with a surprise entry in a big-time race and collect a whole lot of dough for his owners and himself.
Take the $1.5 million Preakness (G1).
Hours before the post-position draw, and just three days before the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Maryland Jockey Club received a call informing them a horse by the name of Everfast would be joining the field.
Never mind that Everfast hadn’t won in his previous nine races after breaking his maiden in his first career start, back on Aug. 12 at Ellis Park. 2018. With a gut feeling, or a hint from owner Brad Kelley’s famed Calumet Farm, Romans declared the bay son of Take Charge Indy in.
“You don’t like to be 50-1, but as long as the horse is happy and doing well — and it’s a wide-open race — why not enter?” was Romans’ logic.
By post time, and with a crowd of about 130,000 jammed into the declining Pimlico Race Course, Everfast was being led into his No. 10 post by jockey Joel Rosario. When the gates sprung open, Everfast was a 29-1 long shot — the second-longest in the 13-horse field that included top choices Improbable and War of Will.
Without the Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Country House, or the DQ’d first-place Derby finisher Maximum Security in the field, not to mention the next two finishers — Tacitus and Code of Honor — the race was indeed wide open.
Everfast broke inward (thankfully after Bodexpress had reared up out of post 9 and unseated jockey John Velazquez), but dropped well back into 11th place. He was more than 18 lengths behind pace-setter Owendale after a half-mile, and about 10 lengths back after three-quarters of a mile of the 1 3/16-mile Preakness.
Then, Rosario moved him off the rail, and Everfast began passing horses. In the stretch, Rosario moved him back to the rail, and Everfast rallied with gusto to finish 1 ¼ lengths behind War of Will, and just held off Owendale by a nose.
Everfast returned a hefty $32.40 to place and $14.40 to show. For Calumet, a $330,000 second-place check. Romans’ share, $33,000.
After the race, Romans was asked if he was surprised.
He went on, of course.
“Second in any classic is great. I thought the whole race he looked comfortable. When he [Rosario] wanted him to start picking up horses, he did. You could see he had the momentum. I thought we were going to win for a minute.”
Romans, though, is not new to tossing in the longest of shots in a big race. He won the 2011 Preakness with Shackleford, a 12-1 ($27.20) shot who defeated Derby winner Animal Kingdom.
A few other surprise winners include Court Vision (65-1, $131.60) in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) at Keeneland and Dawn of War (36-1, $74.60) in the 2005 Breeders’ Futurity (G1). Of course, there also was Keen Ice (16-1, $34) upsetting 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers (G1).
But back to the Preakness. Everfast is his third runner-up. The others were Cherry Wine (17-1) in 2016 and First Dude (23-1) in 2010.
Everfast is now on track for the Belmont Stakes (G1) on June 8. Although War of Will is expected, there will be some Derby starters who passed on the Preakness and, likely, a bunch of new shooters. Romans best finish in the Test of the Champion is third place. A trio of them were long shots: Keen Ice (17-1) in 2015; Medal Count (28-1) in 2014; and Nolan’s Cat (20-1) — a maiden — in 2005.
The 52-year-old Romans grew up around horses at Churchill Downs. His father Jerry Romans was a trainer and Dale started out in 1986. He’s saddled more than 2,000 winners.
Romans won the 2012 Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding trainer. Among his top winners were Little Mike (Breeders’ Cup Turf) and Dullahan (Blue Grass, Pacific Classic), but he also takes pride in his ability to pick the right spot to give some of his runners a chance to pull off a stunner.
As Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito is fond of saying, “If you don’t run, you can’t even lose.” Romans seems to have a similar approach.
In determining whether Everfast was a fit for the Preakness, Romans reached back to the Holy Bull (G2) on Feb. 2 at Gulfstream Park. Everfast ran second — at 128-1 odds. In his next three races, he was eighth in the Fountain of Youth (G2), ninth in the Florida Derby (G1) and fifth in the Pat Day Mile (G3) at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.
“He jumped up and ran big in the Holy Bull,” said Romans. “When he runs big, he runs big. We were hoping he’d throw in one of those big races.”
It was big enough for Romans.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.