To listen to Dale Romans and Tammy Fox banter back and forth is to soak in a microcosm of the 27 years they have spent by each other's side.
A fair amount of snark peppers exchanges between the trainer and his top assistant, exercise rider, and longtime partner—matter-of-fact business talk mixed with a level of sarcasm befitting an old married couple—save for the fact they are neither elderly nor have taken the plunge to become legally bound.
They laugh. They bicker. They jab at each other in a way no others can. But when Fox offers her companion her thoughts on what her legs, seat, and hands are telling her about the charges in his care, there is nothing remotely blithe about the communication.
"You can write it in stone, whatever she tells me. And the feedback from her is invaluable," Romans said of Fox. "When she can't ride anymore, that's when I retire and we go off to Key West."
Given the number of top charges Fox's diminutive frame has been aboard, it's little wonder her gregarious partner heeds her when she says one of his young runners is worthy of faith. Last season, she tabbed an immature bay son Mineshaft as one of her projects.
J Boys Echo was never bad or mean. He just didn't absorb his lessons as quickly as some of his more naturally brilliant brethren. Because Fox realized that early on, and because she gave him the special attention he required, the strong-bodied colt is now set to become the second straight representative for Albaugh Family Stable in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
There is certain level of pride that comes when one talks up a protege and then see that student make good on the boasts. After months of working to get J Boys Echo to shed his lackadaisical tendencies, Fox was like a beaming mom when the colt hit the wire 3 1/2 lengths in front in the March 4 Gotham Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct Racetrack, an effort that locked him into the Kentucky Derby field.
Six months ago, had it been suggested the Albaugh clan and Romans barn would be hanging their classic aspirations on the green colt who broke his maiden at Keeneland Oct. 27, one would have been right to think someone had gotten their bay runners mixed up.
While his former stablemate and fellow Albaugh colorbearer Not This Time was a buzz horse on the Churchill Downs backside heading into his runner-up finish in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), J Boys Echo was still trying to figure out the game and didn't make his debut under the Twin Spires until early October.
He could be a lazy sort during his morning routines, but Fox determined quickly it was lack of focus— not absence of talent—that was holding J Boys Echo back. She started getting on the colt from the time he arrived from Florida after being broken by Barry Berkelhammer, and used every session on the track as an opportunity to teach him how to be a racehorse.
"He was just a little bit further behind horses like Not This Time and ... I took my time with him," Fox said. "I would always just put him behind horses, get the dirt in his face, (and) try (to) get more experience into him. And whenever I would ask him—when I knew it was (the) right moment to make that next move on him—I would just smootch to him and I could feel that acceleration and that power from underneath me, that it was there.
"Whenever I'm galloping one and I know I can handle them really good, I just tend to pay a lot of attention to them and try to get the most out of the horses I'm galloping. And he showed it for me."
What told Fox she was on the right path with J Boys Echo was not a race result or bullet move, but rather when she noticed him responding quicker to tasks he was previously indifferent to. After a three-furlong work at Churchill last summer, Fox could tell there was an extra sharpness to his ways, a flicker in his mind that his competitive juices were starting to percolate.
"I could tell a difference when he went back to the track. He was just more focused in his training," Fox recalled. "When I'm able to get on one of the babies when they first come back, and they're good, I like them. It means they have a lot of class, a lot of talent underneath them. And I like sticking with those horses likes that. I'm lucky enough he didn't get tough with me and I've been able to stay with him this whole time."
"J Boy is obviously more of a special project," Romans added. "(Fox) doesn't only work him. She gallops him every day and has ever since he came in. And he was not the most mature horse when we got him. He would do a lot of things wrong. And she kind of got him focused and doing things the right way."
That didn't mean J Boys Echo still didn't take his sweet time to fully come around. He followed up his 5 1/2-length maiden win by finishing a well-beaten fourth to Gunnevera in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (G3) Nov. 19—an outing that took place just two days prior to the announcement of Not This Time's career-ending soft-tissue injury. With the weight of filling monster shoes on his shoulders, J Boys Echo took a baby step forward when he ran third during his seasonal debut in the Feb. 4 Withers Stakes (G3) before completely turning the tables on multiple graded stakes victor El Areeb in the Gotham.
"When you start talking highly on a horse and they perform like you think they can, it's rewarding," Fox grinned.
Fox has long been respected as one of the toughest pound-for-pound figures on any backstretch, revered for her skill in the saddle, embraced for her warmth, and feared for what her quick tongue can unleash at those who do wrong to her loved ones.
Because of what Fox has, and continues to instill into J Boys Echo, Romans feels comfortable drawing a line through the colt's fourth-place effort in the April 8 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2), a run that was hampered by soft fractions and a less-than-ideal trip.
When the Louisville native says he has not seen a better rider or had a better partner in his personal and professional journey than the pint-sized lady beneath her trademark red helmet, it is an instance where the man famous for quips doesn't have a hint of jest in his tone.
"There are a lot of good things about Tammy that people don't know. They know she can ride, but she's poetry in motion on the back of a horse," Romans said. "She was born to ride, built to ride, and there is nobody better. But besides that, she's a better mother and better partner than she is a rider."