10/28/2010 12:02PM

Stall's moment of truth awaits in Classic

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Al Stall (right) arrives with his top horse, Blame, at Churchill Downs on Wednesday morning. Blame will try to cap his breakout season with a victory in next week's Breeders' Cup Classic.

Just outside Barn 10 on the Fair Grounds backstretch there is a two-step wooden viewing platform set against the chain-link fence that rings the outside of the main track. That’s Al Stall’s perch. Not on a stable pony out on the track, not bantering with the jokers down at the clocker’s stand. From the top step, Stall can see most of the racing oval and out across the infield. The tote board blocks the finish wire, but he has clocked horses from his little step long enough to know when to bing his watch at the end of a work.

Beyond that unseen finish line sits the Fair Grounds grandstand, the new one that went up after a fire brought the old building down in 1993. The old place was where Stall the child cut his racing teeth in the 1960s, when his dad, also named Albert, took him to the track. The elder Stall was a successful owner and breeder; he has won every major race at Fair Grounds but the Louisiana Derby. One of the trainers he helped start on his way was a local boy named Frankie Brothers, and young Al Stall would eventually take on full-time employment in the Brothers barn.

It is one big, cozy Louisiana family, and though Al Stall branched out long ago, the tight nexus has changed his career. Brothers trained for Claiborne for six years, and when Claiborne and its partner, Adele Dilschneider, went searching for a new primary trainer three autumns ago and Stall’s name was tossed in the mix, Claiborne principal Seth Hancock called Brothers for a briefing.

“Seth called me, and of course I gave Al my blessings,” Brothers said. “I told them he’s just been kind of one horse away from the front page.”

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For Stall, that one horse arrived in 2008, his second year as Claiborne’s main trainer. Blame showed promise from the start, and though he missed the Triple Crown in 2009 because of a foot problem, by the end of last year he had finished second in the Super Derby and won the Fayette and Clark handicaps in Kentucky. His connections came into 2010 with a plan to conquer the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and until Oct. 2 it had gone off perfectly. Blame won his first three starts, including Grade 1 victories over two top Todd Pletcher-trained horses, Battle Plan in the Stephen Foster and Quality Road in the Whitney. But at odds of 4-5 he suffered a four-length defeat to unheralded Haynesfield in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

“When you’re 4-5, you know, we were all deflated,” Stall said. “No question about it.”

In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Blame must meet not only Haynesfield but Quality Road again. Top 3-year-old Lookin At Lucky and the defending Classic winner, the unbeaten mare Zenyatta, are also expected to run.

Some may wonder if the horse is ready for the task, others if the trainer is up for the job. But Stall? He doesn’t seem especially concerned.

“I don’t feel any pressure or anything like that, but I’ve never been here before,” Stall said last week. “Maybe I’m too green to know what it’s like.”

Blame is the main cog in Stall’s breakout 2010 season, but there is also J. B.’s Thunder, winner of the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, who is expected to be among the top contenders in the BC Juvenile. And in late summer, Stall sent out Apart, another Claiborne-Dilschneider horse, to win the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs. In a training career dating to 1991, Stall has won 17 graded stakes from 127 such starters. This year, he is 5 for 10.

Stall doesn’t have a technical explanation for how he learned to train horses. He attributes his success to common sense, hard work, and capable performers.

“I got a new feeding program,” he said. “Feed better horses. That’s it. It’s a wonderful plan.”

Stall has won 1,030 races through Oct. 27. As early as 1995 he was up to 75 wins in a year, but as his operation moved from claimers to better stock, his annual win totals dropped while purse earnings went up. For a long time, his destiny was to tread water.

“I was just a regular public trainer, taking all comers, grinding along,” he said. “I’d get a horse here, a horse there, a My Pal Charlie here, or a Ketchikan. Whatever showed up.”

My Pal Charlie and Ketchikan were owned by B. Wayne Hughes, a Californian who was one of Stall’s best clients before Claiborne. My Pal Charlie won the Super Derby in 2008 but never won again. Ketchikan came alive as a 3-year-old early in 2007, winning a pair of Fair Grounds races in electric fashion before finishing second to Circular Quay in the Louisiana Derby. But that would be his last start for more than a year.

This was a running theme for Stall. In 2002, a 2-year-old named Slammed won his maiden with a 96 Beyer Speed Figure, but a week later busted out of his stall and broke his neck. The next year, 2-year-old Cat Dreams crushed a field of maidens but came up with a bowed tendon the next morning.

Even the best days of Joyeux Danseur, Stall’s best horse before Blame, ended abruptly. Joyeux Danseur showed great promise in 1997 and caught fire in 1998, winning four straight turf stakes − capped by the Grade 1 Early Times Turf Classic − by more than 22 lengths combined. But after the Turf Classic, Joyeux Danseur made only two more starts, losing both.

“He didn’t have any injuries,” Stall said. “He was tough mentally. He just turned off on us.”

After that peak year in 1998, when his stable won 65 races and $3.1 million, Stall averaged about 50 wins and less than $1.5 million in annual earnings the next six years. Between 2002 and 2007, he sent out 30 starters in graded stakes but failed to connect in any of them.

When Hancock mentioned Stall to Dilschneider as a possible successor to Bill Mott in 2007, he had to concede the name wasn’t especially big in the game. But at the time, Claiborne, the venerable Kentucky farm, wasn’t exactly rolling, either.

Stall had been training a handful of Claiborne second-stringers in Louisiana for a couple of years when Hancock arranged a meeting at − of all places − a Panera Bread in Frankfort, Ky. Stall thought he was getting fired. Instead he got his break.

Stall, who turned 49 earlier this month, gets to the track early, takes his work seriously, and has a strong commitment to putting the animal first. But that tight Louisiana circle didn’t hurt, and no one would mistake Stall’s story for a rags-to-riches sort.

Stall’s grandfather was an owner and breeder and had a successful dredging business in New Orleans. His father holds a master’s degree in geology from the University of Oklahoma and was chairman of the Louisiana State Racing Commission for 28 years, retiring in 2004. With his wife, Nicole, and their two kids – Albert III, 5, and Greta, 2 – Stall lives in New Orleans’s Uptown neighborhood, around Tulane, a genteel part of the city that came through Hurricane Katrina basically unscathed. He went to the best schools and did not want.

“That silver spoon never tarnished, but he has put in the hours,” cracked 63-year-old veteran trainer Bobby Springer, who has known Stall since he was a kid, and whose Fair Grounds barn is only a few feet away from Stall’s. “He’s worked at it hard, and he’s become a good horseman. Some of those guys, they just stay on the phone.”

Stall’s phone does get plenty of use. Calls and text messages come incessantly, but that’s one of his strongest assets − a network of connections, dutifully cultivated. If something is happening on the racetrack, there is a strong chance he knows about it.

“I don’t hustle information, but observation is everything − keeping your eyes open,” Stall said.

And Stall has a special eye for what’s happening out on the track. Most trainers can recognize the best horses stabled at a venue, but stand with Stall on the rail, and he can casually point out any number of horses − some major, some minor − who reside in other barns.

“I can tell you all about my horses, but Al has a sharper focus on the entire backside operation,” said trainer Tom Amoss, who counts among his early clients the elder Al Stall. “That’s a credit to him.”

Stall is a city trainer, a guy who first learned the game from handicapping in the clubhouse. And he’s fine with that. Unlike many trainers, he doesn’t hide his gambling − he has done well enough through decades of wagering to be “in the black because of big scores” − and, he notes, a lot of trainers come from a city background, including Bobby Frankel.

Stall said he never had any interest in being on horseback, the reason he has spent so much time on the wooden step next to the Fair Grounds barn.

“I was always big, and I was never interested in it,” he said. “When you were young you’d goof around on the pony a little bit, but I had no desire to gallop. And there’s no sense of riding the pony instead of standing on the fence. I don’t think Todd Pletcher can gallop a horse. He rides the pony all the time, but I wouldn’t put him on a tough one to go a mile and a half and tell him to pick it up the last part.”

Stall was an average student in high school, exerting more mental energy in studying the Racing Form than textbooks. At Louisiana State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in geology in 1984, the demands of high-level math and science courses were balanced by the occasional need to make the daily double, Stall said.

“I didn’t want to be an astronaut or a football player,” he said. “I just went along with everything. I went to high school like everyone else, went to college like everybody else. I had no intention of ever dropping out of college, and I didn’t. Geology was my major, but I just did it. Grinding rocks up in the mountains, that wasn’t really for me.”

Neither was a post-college office job in downtown New Orleans with the Pel-Tex Oil Company, a stint that came to an end in 1986, when the office where Stall worked shut down. Stall had spent some holidays and summers working around the Brothers barn. The end of his brief oil-business career spurred him to take racing more seriously.

“He called me up one summer in Chicago and said, ‘I want to be a horse trainer,’ ” Brothers said. “Surprisingly, he was a good groom. He cared about the horses, and he liked the horses. If you’re going to do this, it has to be a labor of love.”

“Really, I had no other choice,” Stall said. “I didn’t have any desire to go to grad school in geology. I was all about the horses. I just went, and I didn’t have much problem carrying myself between the stable and a big pick six I hit somewhere around that time. I ended up with $67,000 and cash as part of a partnership. It wasn’t bad for a 24-year-old with no bills.”

While working for Brothers, Stall and Brothers’s brother Bobby would try to sneak over to the track to watch horses train. Inside that barn was a trove of information for the would-be trainer. Brothers, overseeing a string for the massive Jack Van Berg operation, had more than 90 horses at Louisiana Downs.

“He had every kind of horse imaginable, from the best 2-year-old on the grounds to the best handicap horse on the grounds, and everything in between,” Stall said. “Frankie had one for every race all the time, so you really saw a lot.”

Working in Shreveport, Stall stayed not in a bleak room at the stables, but with Gus Majalis, a man of Greek descent who owned fish markets in Baton Rouge and was a member of the racing commission. Majalis had serious political connections, which in Louisiana at that time was not necessarily a good thing in the end. Majalis wound up in a federal prison following one of the many scandals involving Gov. Edwin Edwards. Edwards had appointed Stall’s father to the chairmanship of the racing board and appears in several winner’s circle photos from early in Stall’s training career.

Stall’s father gave him the second horse he ever trained, but a fellow named Bobby Guidry gave Stall his first horse. Guidry also went to jail for giving Edwards a bribe in exchange for a casino license.

Stall speaks freely of these early associations. And why not? He might have traveled near corruption, but he chose not to be part of it.

“I could have put a few dollars in my pocket and cut things a little short here and there, but I refused to do that,” he said.

Stall also had to face the perception that his father’s position with the commission greased the skids for his success. If a horse he trained scored a blowout victory, the phrase “green light” would get whispered − that is, the horse would get a green light to pass cleanly through the test barn.

“When the alarm goes off at 4:30 every day of the week, you don’t really think about things like that,” Stall said. “And the people who would think about things like that, they aren’t around anymore.”

What people are thinking about Stall now is this: Can his horse win the Breeders’ Cup Classic? Blame, surprisingly, has been favored just three times. He was 5-2 when he won a maiden race and 6-5 when he won the Grade 3 Schaefer last spring, and finally, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the betting public bit, making Blame odds-on chalk in a major race.

Maybe some bettors pinned the loss on a trainer lacking extensive Grade 1 experience, and maybe more will be inclined to discount the horse in the Classic. But in a 12-start career, Blame has never lost two races in a row. Someone is teaching him something and making the right moves. It must be that guy watching from the fence.