In the days leading up to the Preakness Stakes, it seemed that trainer Dale Romans had to remind people he was indeed saddling two horses in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
Following Paddy O'Prado's game third-place run in the Kentucky Derby, the gray colt became one of the most talked about horses coming out of the race and was regarded by many as Romans' best chance at earning his first classic win.
Often lost in those discussions was Romans' "other" trainee, a long-striding gentle giant by the name of First Dude.
But in the aftermath of his yeoman-like runner-up effort in the Preakness, the previously overlooked son of Stephen Got Even heads into this weekend's 142nd Belmont Stakes with some new attention his way — and a fresh target on his back.
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Most maiden winners who carve out an opening quarter in :224⁄5 in a classic race would probably have little fight left when the reigning juvenile champion comes running at them in the stretch.
While it was hardly a shock to see Lookin At Lucky surge to victory in the Preakness Stakes, the fact 23-to-1 shot First Dude held strong to finish just three-quarters of a length behind the Eclipse Award winner caught most observers off guard and proved the 17-hand specimen had more talent than his 1-for-7 career record indicates.
That First Dude showed he could carry his high cruising speed over a distance of ground will likely make him the second choice in the morning line behind Florida Derby winner Ice Box when entries for Saturday's 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes are drawn Wednesday morning.
Confidence from the pundits may be a new thing for First Dude. According to Romans, however, the laid-back bay colt with an affinity for munching on flowers is merely doing what was always expected of him.
"I've always liked First Dude. He's always trained like a top-shelf horse, and he had a couple of problems in his two graded stakes earlier in the year in the Blue Grass Stakes (third) and the Florida Derby (fifth)," Romans said. "I thought if he got a clean trip he was definitely going to be a force to be reckoned with (in the Preakness). And he lived up to what we thought."
Like many youngsters, First Dude was plagued by an awkward stage early on as he grew into his large frame and tried to play catch-up to some of his stablemates.
Though Donald Dizney's homebred earned his lone career win going a mile at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 30th after finishing second in two starts as a 2-year-old, his third-place run behind fellow Belmont Stakes hopeful Stately Victor in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes was a sign he was ready for tougher obstacles.
"He was just a big awkward 2-year-old. He showed talent but ... it just took him a while to figure things out and he is peaking at the right time," said Romans, who has started only one horse in the Belmont, 2005 third-place finisher Nolan's Cat.
"I think he'll continue to get better — that's why we kept putting him in some tough competition because we were waiting on that breakthrough race like he had in the Preakness."
It is a common belief the Belmont's marathon distance is more suited to closers like Ice Box, but the "Test of the Champion" has actually been won more often by horses who possess First Dude's tactical ability.
With the potential lack of speed in this year's Belmont, First Dude could again find himself on the lead Saturday, but Romans insists he took control in the Preakness because no one else wanted to.
"He doesn't have to do it, it just depends on how the race sets up," Romans said. "He doesn't mind setting off the horses."
Romans hasn't been a Triple Crown mainstay, though he has been one of the most successful trainers on the Kentucky circuit for years.
Before Paddy O'Prado — who went on to run sixth in the Preakness — Romans' only other Derby starter was Sharp Humor, who finished 19th in 2006, and his trip to Pimlico last month marked the first time he'd entered a horse in the Preakness.
If First Dude can become Romans' first classic winner on Saturday, the native of Louisville would have the distinction of finishing first, second, and third in the three legs of the Triple Crown with two different horses.
"It's a huge deal any time you can hit the board in a classic race and you're racing at the highest level," Romans said. "Both horses, I think, have shown themselves well. So I would've liked to have won but I have to be proud of my horses."