Jan. 1, 2017 could not arrive fast enough for trainer Dale Romans, who was more than eager to put 2016 behind him. A strong winter meet at Gulfstream Park helped turn the page and now Romans brings the blossoming colt J Boys Echo into Saturday’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, a key Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands prep that has been very good to him in recent years.
Personally and professionally, Romans took some lumps in 2016. He picked up a bad flu bug during an unsuccessful trip to the United Arab Emirates last March when Keen Ice finished off the board in the Dubai World Cup. The following week, Keen Ice, still only months removed from a colossal upset when he defeated American Pharoah in Saratoga’s Travers Stakes, was moved to a different trainer.
By the first Saturday in May, Romans was only just getting healthy when he was involved in a nasty car accident near Churchill Downs in the hours after the Kentucky Derby, which resulted in three of his passengers being hospitalized and kept Romans in pain for months.
A star 2-year-old will brighten anyone’s outlook, and Romans came to an early conclusion that Not This Time represented his best chance yet for Derby glory, that coming from a man who grew up around Churchill Downs, became the second-leading trainer in track history and has finished third in the classic twice from seven career starters. Not This Time confirmed his elite potential in a superb second-place finish to Classic Empire in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November, but only a few days later came the horrifying discovery that the colt had suffered a career-ending injury.
"Between all that stuff, I was ready to say goodbye to 2016," Romans said. "Fortunately, we’ve had a great winter. I think it’s the best meet I’ve ever had at Gulfstream — 24 wins — and while we were there J Boys Echo stepped up in a big way."
J Boys Echo did not exactly sneak up on Romans and owner Dennis Albaugh, who also raced Not This Time. Romans helped procure the colt at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale. He also trains J Boys Echo’s half brother, the Grade 3-placed 4-year-old Unbridled Outlaw.
“Mr. Albaugh has his own team at the sales but I was involved in buying this one,” Romans said. “It was later in the sale and they had gone home, so I went over there and we got this colt as kind of an add-on.”
As Not This Time emerged, Tammy Fox, Romans’ long-time partner and chief exercise rider, was vocal in stating her preference for J Boys Echo. She helped steer an ambitious traveling schedule that saw the colt take part in the Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes in November (a fourth-place finish behind Gunnevera) in Louisiana and the Grade 2 Withers Stakes (third behind El Areeb) in early February at Aqueduct. In the Withers, he broke on the far outside and was parked wide throughout in a sneaky-good performance that prompted another trip from Florida to New York in early March when J Boys Echo delivered his breakthrough, pouncing for a 3 1/2-length win in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes.
“Tammy always liked him, and we were just looking for him to put it all together,” Romans said. “I think the talent was there, he just needed to mature and get the right trip. Nothing bothers him, so we have been able to ship him around — and flying horses is so easy now that it’s not that hard on them.”
Albaugh and his son-in-law, Jason Loutsch, have been associated with Romans since their first foray on the Triple Crown trail in 2010, when they were members of the Donegal Racing partnership that campaigned Paddy O’Prado, who finished second in the Blue Grass and third in the Kentucky Derby. Albaugh, of Ankeny, Iowa, has subsequently raced his own stable, with Loutsch managing the operation, and last year they reached a high mark when the Romans-trained Brody’s Cause prevailed in the Blue Grass.
Romans’ record in Keeneland’s signature race has been sterling, with two wins, two seconds and two thirds from his last six runners (since 2010).
“We are really excited to be back in the Blue Grass with Dale and J Boys Echo; Keeneland is our favorite place to come to and the Blue Grass has been a big part of that,” Loutsch said. “It’s been quite a ride the last few months. When I first got the phone call that Not This Time was injured, for a while I didn’t even want to talk about horse racing. My father-in-law was also really upset, obviously. We had flashes of what could be with that horse — we had Dale telling us he could be the best horse he ever trained, it was a homebred — and to get that call was devastating. After a couple weeks, we went to Delta and J Boys Echo didn’t run his race, so we were pretty down in the dumps. We figured this wasn’t going to be the year for us unless something really stepped up quickly, but that’s what J Boy has done.
“We were waiting for that race where he had a clean trip and could show what he could do, and it came in the Gotham. That was great to see, and now for the Blue Grass, it’s a little less pressure. We had to finish first or second with Brody’s Cause last year. We have already qualified this time, and so our main obstacle this weekend is to see a positive race and move forward a little bit. If we come running down the lane, it will put us in a good position for going a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May.”