LOUISVILLE, KY (June 5, 2017) – Outside his tack room office on the backside of Churchill Downs, trainer Dale Romans can see a lot of things.
To his right, is the track kitchen, where he will occasionally take a stroll over to visit. To his left is the gap to the backstretch and a clocker’s stand, where he goes each day to watch his horses breeze and train. In every direction, there are horses. A bevy of activity.
But step inside the tiny room, and immediately you will be drawn to one thing. One major thing. A mammoth, framed picture of the Romans’ colt, Not This Time, winning the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs last September. It hangs right there for all the world to see. And, the rest of the world to ask about and wonder “what if…”
“I think of that horse every day,” Romans said, with half a sigh in his voice. “I think of what might have been. I think of, really, what could have been.”
This week we are on the brink of the Belmont Stakes – the oldest of the Triple Crown races. And, considering that the winner of the Kentucky Derby (Always Dreaming) and the winner of the Preaknesss Stakes (Cloud Computing) are not expected to be entered in the Belmont, there will be a different colt to win all three legs of this year’s version of the Triple Crown.
That fact is no different than a year ago, when three distinctly different colts wrestled control of one of the legs. Nyquist, undefeated at the time, won the Kentucky Derby. But two weeks later, he was upset by his archrival Exaggerator. Three weeks later, Exaggerator was destroyed by Creator.
So, for the second straight year, after a sweep of the Triple Crown by the great American Pharoah, we eyeball parity once again. It wasn’t that long ago, just seven months in fact, from a day and time when hope ran eternal in racing winner’s circles and a horse trainers head.
None ran deeper than the spring well bursting in the mind of one Dale Romans. None of those dreams were any bigger than the ones bouncing off the eyelids of one Dale Romans. None of the future could have been bigger, brighter, more thrilling than what Dale Romans had planned.
After all, in his No. 1 stall, was the long-legged, super-winded super star colt, Not This Time.
“He had everything you could ever want in a racehorse,” said Romans, looking at that picture hanging in his office. “Most of all, though, he had talent. A world of talent.”
It didn’t take long for Not This Time to show it. And, it didn’t take long for him to prove it, either. After a lackluster, fifth-place performance in a sprint race at Churchill Downs on June 30 of last year, in his career debut, Not This Time got his first race two weeks later at Ellis Park.
This time, Not This Time, made it his time. He won by 10 lengths. And, just take a look at the horses he manhandled that day:
- Society Beau, who broke his maiden in his very next start and went on to have two wins, four seconds and a third in his next seven starts. He is coming off a fifth place finish in the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico, on the Preakness undercard and was just beaten 3 lengths by third-place finisher True Timber. True Timber will run in the Belmont Stakes.
- Patriot Drive, who broke his maiden by 5 lengths on the grass at The Fairgrounds this April. That was his first trip on the turf.
- Giant Payday, who broke his maiden at Keeneland last October and has been so impressive that his top-notch trainer, Ian Wilkes, has started him in three stakes races this year.
- Senior Investment, who has won three times since the drubbing by Not This Time – including an impressive win in the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland this April, and, most recently, a fast-closing third in the Preakness Stakes.
“I knew he had it when I breezed him the very first time,” said Romans. “I knew we had something very special in the barn. I said to myself at the time, I have my Derby horse. Right here, I have my Derby horse.”
It certainly appeared like it. Every step of the way got more and more impressive.
On Sept. 17, Romans entered Not This Time, a son of Giant’s Causeway, in the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs. He won this 11/16-mile race by 83/4 lengths. And, just look at who he destroyed this time:
- Lookin’ at Lee, who ran 2nd in the Ky Derby and fourth in the Preakness.
- Recruiting Ready, who has won two straight stakes races in his last two starts this year (Bachelor Stakes at Oaklawn Park and the Chick Lang Stakes at Pimlico) and is now being pointed to the Grade 2 Woody Stephens Stakes on Belmont Day.
- Thirstforlife, who won his next start at Keeneland in October and finished last year in the Delta Jackpot.
It didn’t take the world of Thoroughbred racing long to take notice. And, after he ran a game, fast-closing, second to Classic Empire in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita last November, the world soon was thinking what Romans was saying: this very well may be his Derby horse; his Triple Crown horse. His version of American Pharoah.
But, as with some dreams, this one turned from honeymoon beauty to hurricane horrific in the blink of an eye and the tick of a stopwatch. After his gallant run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Not This Time came up lame in his right front leg. He had sustained a career-ending, dream-crashing, gut wrenching soft tissue injury to his right front.
Before his 3-year-old career could even begin; before his Triple Crown run could ever truly start; before anyone could smell roses, or black-eyed Susan’s, or see the lights of Broadway, Not This Time was headed to Taylor Made Farm in Central Kentucky. To begin a career as a stallion. Not to chase a Triple Crown.
This is what Dale Romans told The Blood-Horse at the time:
“It’s a real shame to see him leave the barn before we got to see him fulfill his enormous potential, because there’s no doubt in my mind he was as good of a Kentucky Derby contender as there is out there,” said Romans. “I told (owner) Dennis (Albaugh) he better stay in on him as a stallion because he’s going to be the next Danzig. This horse is the real deal. Spooky good, like I’ve said before. He looks the part, he had the mindset for it, he had the talent and turn of foot. There’s just nothing missing with him.”
The only thing missing was the chance. The chance of a lifetime. And, there is not a day that goes by – on this long and arduous trail they call the Triple Crown – that Dale Romans doesn’t think of what might have been; what could have been.
“I haven’t slept a night all the way through since the day he got hurt and left,” said Romans, just a few days ago. “He would have been a major contender against this group.”
To help console him, Romans will have a horse to saddle in the Belmont. It will be J Boys Echo, who isn’t a slouch either. He won the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct earlier this spring and is training very well going into this Saturday.
And, Romans knows a Belmont horse when he sees one. After all, he has finished third in the 1 1/2-mile stake on four occasions already.
“J Boys Echo is really coming into the race as good as any horse I’ve had in awhile,” said Romans. “He’s doing really well. He has a chance. I’m telling you, he’s got a chance.”
But Romans would also be the first to tell you that Not This Time would have had a chance, too. A chance as big as the picture that hangs in his office. Over-sized. Under-appreciated. Never to be known.