For Romanoble, it's a real change of pace

Harness racing: His 15th birthday put the Rosecroft favorite into mandatory retirement at home on the Eastern Shore - with someone on his back.

April 12, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

CORDOVA - When racing officials created the Old Saint Nick Pace just before Christmas at Rosecroft Raceway, they limited the race to horses at least 10 years old. The intention was to showcase a local celebrity named Romanoble, a 14-year-old warhorse making his 353rd - and final - start.

The old boy was being forced out to pasture. Harness racing requires mandatory retirement for horses at the end of their 14th year. Romanoble would turn 15 on Jan. 1, the official birthday of all racehorses.

On Dec. 20 at the track in Prince George's County, Romanoble concluded his stellar career with typical aplomb. Just as he had done 70 times before - at least once every year since 1992 - Romanoble won.

Ellen Harvey, director of Harness Racing Communications, says Romanoble's longevity places him "all the way on the right-hand side of the bell-shaped curve." Still, she says, his 353 starts don't rank at the top of the most-raced standardbreds, the breed that competes in harness racing. Because harness racing is less stressful on horses, standardbreds usually race more often than thoroughbreds.

If Romanoble were a thoroughbred, then his starts would rank fourth among horses since 1930. In harness racing, however, 700 horses since 1975 have raced more than Romanoble. Nevertheless, Harvey says, the Rosecroft sensation remains in exclusive company; only about a half dozen 14-year-olds conducted full campaigns last year in North America.

"Here you have a blue-collar horse punching the time clock 20, 30, 35 times a year," she says. "He's the Cal Ripken of harness racing."

Not long ago, Nick Callahan, who bred, trained and owns Romanoble, demonstrated what he has in store for the horse in his golden years. At his farm in Cordova on the Eastern Shore, Callahan, 46, climbed astride the thick, bay horse as his stocky son, Shaun, 22, tried to steady the steed.

Unlike thoroughbreds, which carry a jockey, standardbreds pull a cart and driver. Romanoble had not experienced a human on his back until earlier this year, when Callahan stepped upon an overturned bucket and climbed aboard.

Callahan did that twice, both times with Romanoble confined in his stall. This time, he stood outside his barn with no restraint except a young man straining. Shaun couldn't hold him, and Romanoble bulled his way forward several steps, enough to sling Callahan off and crashing onto the frozen ground.

Shaun kept hold of the shank, and Romanoble, unencumbered, became still. Callahan brushed himself off, grabbed a handful of mane and tried again. This time, Romanoble stood quietly, although his pinned ears expressed what he thought about this budding career as a riding horse.

That's what Callahan hopes to do, turn the retired racer into a horse he can ride around the same 26 acres where Romanoble was born, grew up and has spent every night of his life. Callahan doesn't plan on changing that.

Romanoble takes comfort in things being the same, day after day after day. Callahan says that this will be where Romanoble spends the rest of his days, that the old campaigner deserves nothing less.

Callahan, who grew up in one family of Eastern Shore horsemen and married into another, continues to marvel at Romanoble's consistency. He always almost bolted into the lead, even on 14-year-old legs.

In fact, Romanoble won more races last year (16 wins in 33 starts) than he had won in any previous year. What's more, he won his last five races. The U.S. Harness Writers Mid-Atlantic Chapter named Romanoble its 2003 Horse of the Year.

"Most of the people there were as proud of him as I was," Callahan says. "Every time he won, they came up and said, `Well, the old man got another one.' "

Romanoble never competed in a stakes race, but he won at the Meadowlands, the New Jersey track where the elite standardbreds race, and he set a track record at Dover Downs when he was 7. Romanoble completed one mile at the Delaware track in 1 minute, 52 3/5 seconds.

But mainly he raced at Rosecroft, winning 54 races there. In his latter years, Callahan placed him in claiming races. Those are races in which every horse is for sale for a predetermined price. Last year, anyone could have claimed, or bought, Romanoble for as little as $3,000.

"Every now and then someone would say, `I ought to claim the old boy,' " Callahan says. "But everyone knew he'd been with me his whole life and was going to stay with me. It's really a tight-knit bunch of people in this industry. It's like having another family."

Callahan bred Romanoble from a mare he had raced, Noble Isle, and the stallion G E's Romanero, whom his wife's uncle, Gene Ewing, stood at a nearby farm. It was the first year Ewing offered G E's Romanero for stud duty. He was eager for customers and gave the breeding to Callahan for free.

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