The Inside Rail

“She was a runner.” 

That’s how Randy Romero signed a photo of Personal Ensign winning the 1988 Whitney. That was it, simple and oh so sweet. Just like the man. 

There she was splashing through the Saratoga mud, beating Gulch and King’s Swan in a three-horse scrum. Long before Rachel Alexandra, Personal Ensign beat the boys at Saratoga. Romero rode her in 12 of her 13 starts. Light hold, whip flicking like a fan, timing it perfectly, all the way down to the last one, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 1988 when the undefeated champion nailed Winning Colors on the line. Romero timed the race to perfection, but it was more like he timed her to perfection, waiting, humoring, flirting until the undefeated wonder decided it was time. 

Romero never bullied her, never sullied her, even when it was all on the line, Romero kept his rhythm, kept his timing, adjusting his left cross through the stretch like he was fixing a cuff on his shirt. He was the perfect passenger on a perfect ride. 

She was a runner. And he was a rider.

Romero died Thursday. The Hall of Fame jockey was 61. Soft-handed and soft-spoken, Romero gave his body to a game that will take as much as you’ll give. He had nothing left to give. It had been a long, slow, heart-wrenching slide from the heady days of Personal Ensign and Go For Wand to years of health issues from riding races. He died with his four brothers in Louisiana, far, far away from the bright lights of New York where he had made it big so many years ago.

Dallas Stewart remembers the day he left. Stewart was working as Romero’s valet at Fair Grounds when the jockey walked into the jocks’ room with a copy of GQ magazine. 

“Jock, what you doing with that?”

“Brother, I’m going to New York and I’ve got to learn how to dress.”

“Damn, Dog, we ride eight or nine today, let’s just win these races.”

Knowing Romero, he won them all.

At Belmont Park in September 1986, Romero hooked up with Personal Ensign. Two years later, she had run the table. The following year, he met up with Go For Wand, they won 10 of 12 before that haunting day at Belmont Park. Romero broke eight ribs, a bone in his shoulder, just tolls on his road. The native of Erath, Louisiana, came back like he always did but never reached those heady days again, retiring in 1999. Romero won 4,294 races, 342 stakes and his horses earned $75 million in purses. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.

“He was one of a kind,” Stewart said.

After retiring, Romero worked as a jocks’ agent for Fernando Jara, Marlon St. Julien and other riders, always making a positive difference to them and making a living. Kidney failure disrupted his agent career. Romero was a wreck, not riding, not working, dialysis treatment ruling his once unruly spirit. 

He called his old friend.

“I am so depressed,” Romero confessed.

“Well, I’m coming back there,” Stewart said, on his way to Churchill Downs.

“Man, I’m going to walk horses for you.” 

“What?” 

“Yeah, I just want to walk horses. I just want to be with you, man.”

Romero didn’t have a car, walked a mile to meet Stewart at a gas station and then walked horses all morning. 

It lasted about a week.

Stewart came back from the track and there was Romero atop a horse walking the shedrow. 

“What are you doing?”

“Ah, I’m just shedrowing this horse, having a little fun.”

Romero had enough fun to walk across the street and buy a helmet and boots.

“Dude, your wife is going to kill us.”

“Dallas, if it kills me, at least, I’ll go happy. I love being on horses.” 

Stewart relented, allowing Romero to jog a couple of horses. 

That lasted about a week.

Romero began galloping a couple.

That lasted about a week. 

“Now, you’re going to get the Hall of Fame opinion. Let’s go,” Romero said to Stewart when he hopped on a horse ready to breeze. Knowing Romero, there was nothing for Stewart to do but give him instructions.

In what would be Romero’s crescendo to a tale that had it all, he traveled with Stewart from Saratoga to Fair Grounds to Churchill Downs, riding in the morning and taking dialysis in the afternoon. In 2005, Stewart put Romero on an unraced filly nursing a shin to work an easy quarter-mile over the Keeneland training track.

“Just gallop her around this little track and let her go down the backside. I want to see how that shin is holding up.”

Romero sat as still as he did on those Personal Ensign jaunts, the filly lengthened stride and Stewart clicked his watch: 22 seconds.

He was livid, telling Romero the speeding infraction when he got back to the barn.

Romero jumped off the filly and stood his ground.

“I want to tell you one thing, you go buy the mama, the brother, the sister, anything related to this filly because she’s going to be a champion.” 

“Are you kidding me?”

“I’m telling you, I haven’t felt one like this in a long time.” 

Lemons Forever won the Kentucky Oaks the following spring, sold for $2.5 million two years later. 

She was a runner.

There will never be another Randy Romero. A born rider. A racing legend.