In the spectrum of sports entertainment, it is easy to root for the underdog and cheer against the favorite; to want to spread the spoils and enjoy the theatrics of the unexpected. In the microcosm of Thoroughbred horse racing, such is amplified, as significant emphasis is placed on who embodies which role, with illuminated odds branding why they are monetarily worthy of your endorsement.
But what happens when the fan favorite and local staple is a bit of a longshot—when the defining lines of dark horse and horse-to-beat are heavily blurred, like a night of too many hand grenades in the French Quarter?
Enter Al Stall Jr.
The fledgling flush of Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots‘ 80-day meet is The Al Stall Jr. Show, and the rest of us are just extras. Within a year that has tested the tenacity of the New Orleans native, Stall (pictured on the cover with wife Nicole) has put on a clinic during the first two weeks of the Crescent City oval’s 145th racing season, winning with six of his first 11 starters—including a pair of stakes victories with Seaside Candy (Si Cima Stakes) and Yockey’s Warrior (Thanksgiving Handicap). His runners finished second three times and only worse than fourth once as the meet gets underway.
“Racing is great when things go well for you,” Stall said. “You just have to know how to deal with it when they don’t. We had a slow summer and we had little issues with horses. Seaside Candy and Yockey’s Warrior are great examples where they went through a lot of minor setbacks and we had to be patient and give them the time they needed.
“The game isn’t as difficult when they’re sound,” he added. “When you get all that behind you is when you start having your horses doing well together—and we have some more coming after the turn of the year that I really like and are exciting. Hopefully we will do well.”
The former Frankie Brothers assistant’s victories land him on top of the Fair Grounds standings, placing him two ahead of defending meet champion Mike Stidham—himself with a stellar 10-4-1-1 start through Saturday’s card—and nearly doubling that rival in purses earned. In fact, the $200,260 banked through the first six race days is already 29.3% of what his barn earned during the 2015-16 season ($683,175) and 35.5% of his 2014-15 total ($564,020). On victories, he is on pace to smash the 15 and 21 wins of the aforementioned meets. Stall could give the local heavyweight stables of Stidham, Steve Asmussen, Brad Cox, and Joe Sharp a serious run for their money, despite operating with appreciably less stock.
Such a promising commencement to what will be a long four-and-a-half-month meet is just what the candid conditioner and winner of 31 graded stakes appears to have needed. The 55-year-old father of two and only trainer to defeat the great Zenyatta saw many of his top horses go to the sidelines or sold—including Brittlyn Stable’s stakes-winning Forevamoand Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence’s graded stakes winner and multiple grade I-placed Paid Up Subscriber—while also parting ways with longtime client Claiborne Farm, who co-owned the team’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Blame , in early summer.
“I have great owners and I’m very thankful for them,” said Stall, who holds an impressive 19.6% career strike rate. “They have been great with me and my program. I only had four horses with Claiborne when we parted. It wasn’t earth-shattering and we are still on good terms, but they want to focus on the east coast. I still have excellent owners like Klaravich, G M B Racing, Columbine (Stable), Dixiana (Farm), Brittlyn (Stable), and Stewart Madison, to name a few.
“I’m looking forward to getting Forevamo back,” he continued. “He was a little tired after West Virginia and we were fighting keeping weight on him, so we decided to pull the plug and let him grow up. He went to WinStar and he’s about to come back. I’m eager to see how he does because he’s a big eyeful of a horse and I think the world of him. As far as our 2-year-olds, we got a little behind on them, but my gut tells me there are some good ones in there and, of course, it’s not a bad thing to have good 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds in your barn.”
It is also not a bad thing to have a trainer who is batting 20% on the year and whose forbearance has been beyond fruitful throughout his career. Developing everything from top juveniles like J. B.’s Thunder and Top Decile, to sprinters like Central Banker , prime grass horses like Joyeux Danseur, and classy campaigners like Apart and Blame, the Al Stall way—whether as underdog or favorite—has often led to the winner’s circle.
“It is absolutely about listening to the horse,” Stall concluded. “You have to know when they’re not asking for a break or when they’ve had a long season and need it. It’s easy to block out something that’s going on and let your ego and adrenaline take over, but we don’t do that. You have to tell the truth, especially with nice horses—because you will get rewarded.”