Forty years later, he's poised to make history with runners of his own.
Al Stall Jr. was that boy, raised in the racing culture of New Orleans and trained under the guiding wisdom of old-time horsemen. Next Saturday, the 48-year-old son of longtime Louisiana racing commissioner Al Stall Sr. will saddle a brilliant bay runner named Blame in an attempt to take down the undefeated race mare Zenyatta.
In the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, Zenyatta faces the nation's top male horses while streaking toward an unprecedented 20th straight victory. But she has never run at Churchill Downs before, and Blame has won both of the historic oval's key handicap races, the Clark Handicap and the Stephen Foster. Many believe this Stall trainee -- his first Classic contender -- is the big mare's greatest threat.
How the horseman's strongest runner wound up poised to tackle Zenyatta in the Classic is no accident. Stall planned all Blame's work, every start this season, to get exactly to this place. In fact, it could be said he has been planning all his life for such a time as this.
Stall is a soft-spoken horseman from Louisiana who runs his stable in a calm and confident manner. There are no prerace shenanigans, no overly anxious approaches. His philosophy is simple: "just trying to stay out of the horse's way, using common sense." It's easy. If the runners need something, they get it.
It worked with Joyeux Danseur, a Grade 1-winning Turf contender who was Stall's first Breeders' Cup starter (he ran seventh in the 1998 Breeders' Cup Mile). It also worked with his first Super Derby winner, My Pal Charlie, who was fourth in the 2008 Dirt Mile. But the biggest key to the trainer's success, in 19 years on his own, has been a tailored approach to the individual racing campaigns of his charges.
"We have plans for all the horses," he said. "Some plans are just more grandiose than others."
The latter part of Blame's career has been a brilliant illustration. When the son of Arch won the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs last fall for Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, it was clear that he was talented enough to point for a start in the Breeders' Cup the following season.
"When he won the Clark, we said, 'OK, we've got a very nice horse here, we'll give him a chance to be as good as he can be," said Stall. "We thought about going to Dubai for a second because he's good on [artificial surfaces], but we said, you know, 'Home track, he's got a great record at Churchill, let's go ahead and mark November 6th and then back up from there.'"
After the Clark, Stall gave the colt a lengthy rest. His objective, to let Blame build a solid foundation, was accomplished. In 2010, Blame won the William D. Schaefer at Pimlico on Preakness day, the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs in June and the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga in August.
"Horses that run well in the Breeders' Cup often have a second half of the year résumé, so we didn't do anything with him until May," Stall explained. "He just got big, who knows the number of pounds, but certainly put on a lot of weight. And with solid training there's obviously some muscle involved in that. He didn't need to look any better than when he was younger, but he certainly did."
When Blame shipped into Stall's barn as a 2-year-old, there were no strikes against him, but he didn't come with a brilliant reputation either. The woman who had overseen his early training -- Jane Dunn at Holly Hill Training Center in South Carolina -- said he was like a blank slate: no problems, no sickness, ready to be discovered. That's the kind of runner a horseman likes to work with.
"That's what you want, a horse in the middle of the pack to raise his hand and say, 'Hey, here I am, I'm good,'" Stall said.
It wasn't long before Blame began to do just that.
"Riders who got on him said it felt like he was shod in marshmallows, he hit the ground so soft and smooth," the trainer recalled. "[Jockey] Garrett Gomez said that when he worked him also, that you almost don't feel him hit the ground, which is a good thing. About a month or so after he got here, we started thinking, 'Hmmmm, this might be OK.'"
These horses don't let you get away with much at that high level, so when there's something wrong with them, you might as well stop and fix it.
”-- Trainer Al Stall
The colt broke his maiden with a solid five-wide move in a $50,000 race at Keeneland on Oct. 17, 2008. He was the kind of runner horsemen would consider for the Triple Crown trail, but a severe abscess in a hind foot prevented him from prepping for the Kentucky Derby. It was eight months before he returned to the starting gate.
Stall said he never regretted giving the colt extra time to recover. While many horsemen would have been tempted to rush into the spring classics, he held Blame back with an eye on the latter part of the year.
"That's just common sense, pay me now or pay me later," he said. "These horses don't let you get away with much at that high level, so when there's something wrong with them, you might as well stop and fix it. Claiborne and Adele Dilschneider are incredibly good about that, they know how that works. Any time it's been necessary, we've done it with their horses."
For Seth Hancock, president of his family's Claiborne Farm, the great amount of respect he already had for Stall increased by leaps and bounds through the colt's late 2-year-old season and into his 3-year-old year in 2009.
"The horse showed some pretty good form as a 2-year-old, so your natural inclination is to think of the spring classics, and that should be especially true of a guy who is trying to make his mark like Al," Hancock said. "But when the foot issue came up in New Orleans, instead of pushing to get him ready come hell or high water, he just gave him the time. I really admire him for not trying to make the horse do something he wasn't ready to do."
Even after Blame won the Curlin Stakes that summer at Saratoga, Stall resisted the temptation to try the Travers. Instead, he pointed the colt to the Super Derby, where he ran a solid second. He ran well at Keeneland. He ran well in the Clark. By the time the Schaefer rolled around, it was clear that he was going to run well in pretty much every race they entered.
The relationship between Stall, a lesser-known horseman than many of his modern counterparts, and Claiborne Farm, a historic industry organization with decades of impact on the sport, has been a perfect match. In 2001, Hancock sent about seven or eight horses that didn't do well in New York to Stall in Louisiana. Stall raced them and they won. And when Stall's former mentor, trainer Frankie Brothers, retired, Hancock decided to send Stall the entire string.
"I gave him my blessing, so to speak, and I thought Al was very deserving," Brothers recalled. "I'm a little partial because I'm his mentor and his father gave me my start in the game, so I was very happy to be able to reciprocate a little bit. He's a top-notch trainer, but the big horses have just eluded him a little. He's done very good training, but been one big horse away from the front page, so to speak."
He's a top-notch trainer, but the big horses have just eluded him a little. He's done very good training, but been one big horse away from the front page, so to speak.
”-- Retired trainer Frankie Brothers
Stall took over Claiborne's main runners in 2007, almost three years ago to the day. And now, on the farm's 100th anniversary, a colt they bred, by Arch, a sire they raced, has brought them all into the spotlight together.
"I trained Arch and Liable, the dam, and I guess I trained the trainer, so you could say I've got a big rooting interest," Brothers said. "It's a really nice thing for everyone involved."
"For this horse to come along in the year where it's our 100th anniversary makes it very special," Hancock said. "And we're very proud of Al and the job he's done, and that makes it special, too."
Now the mission has all but been accomplished. But taking on Zenyatta, a runner of legendary proportions, is a bittersweet challenge.
"I have real respect for the Mosses, and Mike Smith used to ride Lure for us, so I have tremendous respect for him," said Hancock. "And John Shirreffs, I don't know that well, but from what I've heard he's a great horseman and he's certainly done well with Zenyatta. It would be good for the game if she won and went 20-for-20, I know that, but what the heck can we do? We have to show up and give it our best shot. I hope we run a nice race and we can be proud of our horse after the Breeders' Cup. He's never run a bad one. I just hope he shows up and runs the way we know he can."
According to Stall, that won't be a problem. The colt's last race, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, was nothing more than a glorified workout, he said. Tracking a slow pace set by eventual winner Haynesfield, the closer had no chance to make up ground in the final furlongs. He finished second by four lengths.
"He didn't overdo himself in that race, which might be a blessing in disguise," the trainer said. "When he got to Belmont, all he did was look around. He got there Friday afternoon and ran Saturday afternoon, and he just looked at that humongous building and all that was going on at Belmont. It was the first time he'd ever been there, pigeons flying all around the barn, he just had his head up about six inches higher than he normally does, just taking everything in. I think if he'd been given another day or two he probably would have dropped his head like, OK, I understand what's going on. He's a very sharp horse and he was training good and everything was fine. He ran OK, he just got outrun."
A victory over Zenyatta would be a career-defining moment that would perfectly close out what can only be considered a breakout season for Stall.
"This is sure the best year we've had," he said. "I don't have any more horses than I've ever had, I just have better horses. What it might lead to, I don't know. We just happen to have a few that are making names for themselves."
Aside from Blame, he conditions Breeders' Cup Juvenile contender J.B.'s Thunder; Super Derby winner Apart, who will start in the Ack Ack Handicap on Friday, Nov. 5; and maiden winner Aide, a filly pointed toward a 2-year-old race at Churchill on Sunday, Oct. 31. They're part of a string of about 45 runners at Keeneland, Churchill and Fair Grounds. This winter, they'll be consolidated into one barn for the racing season in New Orleans.
Blame won't be there. The colt will retire at the end of 2010, the Breeders' Cup Classic his final start. After that race, he'll go to stand at Claiborne. But he is still Stall's charge until then, and as that race looms, the pressure is mounting.
"I worried about it earlier more than I do now," Stall said. "The closer you get to the race, if you're still in the game, that means your horse is doing fine, and the more comfortable you feel. And on race day, I'll actually be relaxed and try to enjoy myself."
The remaining days will be bittersweet. But the trainer knows his biggest job has been done. Now, everything's up to the horse -- and he's ready to turn in an incredible effort.
"It's going to be very exciting," Stall said.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.