Spoiling racing’s feel-good story of the year is something Al Stall Jr. has done before.
In the fall of 2010, beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs, the Stall-trained Blame held on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a head over Zenyatta. It was the final start – and only loss – of the super mare’s 20-race career.
“It’s just the way things worked out,” Stall said this morning, his first on the Pimlico backstretch. “Nothing’s by design, I can tell you that right now.”
Stall and his horse, Grade 3 winner Departing, arrived at Old Hilltop last night with their sights set on Saturday’s Preakness, where they will try to derail Kentucky Derby winner Orb’s date with destiny.
“With Zenyatta, we just worried about Blame until the eighth pole,” Stall said. “We’re the same with Departing. Obviously, we respect Orb and love the connections and the story and all that. We’re just concerned with getting our horse to show up and run well.”
Owned and bred by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, the same connections as Blame, Departing enters the Preakness off a professional 3 ¼-length victory in the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Park on April 20.
The gelded bay son of Grade 2-winning sprinter War Front has won four of his five lifetime starts, the only loss coming in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby on Stall’s home turf at Fair Grounds, an effort that convinced him to look past Louisville and point straight for Baltimore.
“We just didn’t think he got enough out of the Louisiana Derby to make that step forward,” Stall said. “He had to earn his way into the Preakness, and we got that in Illinois.
“He was in a pretty good spot (in the Louisiana Derby) and just didn’t go right on. I guess a lot of people might have just thrown him in the Derby, but he’s a gelding and we didn’t want to tear him up. We wanted to see one more race and kind of see what we had.
“We still don’t know exactly what we have, but we learned a lot more. He did go forward, which is a good trait of a 3-year-old this time of year. We feel very comfortable being here, win, lose or draw.”
Departing got his first look at Pimlico’s main track today, out for an early morning gallop. This will be the fourth different track in six starts for Departing, who has won wherever he has gone, including a victory in the Texas Heritage Stakes at Sam Houston in March.
“He looked like himself. Very happy,” Stall said. “He started off comfortable, checking things out, then dropped his head a little bit and trained right along. I thought he looked great.
“He went to Houston racing (one) turn and it was obviously no problem. He went to Hawthorne and did the same thing. That tells me two things; his temperament can handle it and, more importantly, it seems like he doesn’t need a special racetrack. That’s all good for him.”
Departing will break from post four in the Preakness, three spots outside of Orb, who drew the rail. Orb is the even-money program favorite, while Departing is a narrow third choice at 6-to-1, behind Mylute at 5-to-1.
“I think we’re going to go run our ‘A’ race,” Stall said. “Whether that’s going to be good enough, I don’t know, but he acts like he’s going to go fire. I’d be surprised if he didn’t.”