Tom's Showing Where Credit Lay for Blame

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Tom's d'Etat | Coady

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It takes a lot of prospecting, a lot of false leads, a lot of patient drilling. When you do strike oil, however, the fulfilment of a single moment will suddenly indemnify all the barren endeavour in between. And that's equally true whether you are a geologist, trying to read the complexion of the land above mineral deposits; or a horseman, trying to find that latent seam of class beneath the surface hints of pedigree and conformation.

Al Stall, Jr., having filled both roles in his time, recognizes the analogy.

“Oh, no question about it,” he says. “When you drill a well in an area where there's not that much control, in terms of other wells around it, they call that the 'wildcat.' And when you're buying a racehorse, it's strictly a wildcat operation. You get as much information as possible, but you're on your own.”

Not just when you're buying a racehorse, either. Any horseman, any breeder or trainer, knows that the Thoroughbred yields its energy only to those who match good judgment with good luck. Ten years ago, Stall hit paydirt with Blame (Arch), that plucky creature who undeservedly found himself cast as villain when becoming the only horse ever to beat Zenyatta (Street Cry {Ire}) in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic. Now Stall is hoping to target the same race again–and this time, happily, he would be assured of all the public support that should be his due, being transparently as decent a man as he is gifted a trainer.

For Tom's d'Etat (Smart Strike), having broken into the national elite only as he was turning seven, now appears to offer a potential path to redemption for a sport that can only peer towards Keeneland in November through a swirling and perilous fog.

His comeback success at Oaklawn a couple of weeks ago was in itself a welcome oasis in the coronavirus desert. But it also confirmed that the pipeline he finally assembled before his first Grade I success, in the Clark S. last fall, is now maintaining a smooth flow from the deepest wells of his talent (those wells, don't forget, are shared with Candy Ride {Arg})–a full brother to his second dam).

That's important, because Tom's d'Etat had only contested seven races through his first four years in training. His dominant performance in the Clark, on the other hand, was his ninth start in 13 months. At Oaklawn, moreover, the veteran at last permitted Stall to make a deliberate virtue of his proven efficacy off the bench.

“Every other lay-off hadn't been by design, but out of necessity,” Stall explains. “Whether it was a surgery, or a subchondral bone bruising, or something else. But this particular freshening, from the Clark to the Oaklawn Mile, was just with the back half of 2020 in mind, with the Breeders' Cup obviously the key. He had a very nice winter and took everything in stride. We let him down, picked him up and he didn't miss a day. So we were confident he was going to come back in form. We're really on schedule, which is a rare thing in horseracing.”

There's something characteristically classy about Stall's acknowledgement that if you set your sights on a race like the Classic, you do it like you mean it. The big money options of the Pegasus or the Middle East did not distract Stall or his patron Gayle Benson, and they can take heart from the fact that Tom's d'Etat first opened everyone's eyes to his real caliber last year when romping in the GII Fayette S.–over the same course that will host the Classic.

And his performance in Hot Springs, in a wildly competitive field for the grade, confirmed that he is really thriving in maturity.

“Knock on wood, he has become a very sound horse,” Stall agrees. “I almost feel like he's only just got in form. He hadn't had a chance before, because his rhythm was always broken up. Now he's obviously cardio fit, his mind understands everything, he's battle-tested. He's always had a lot of talent. He was a pricey yearling at $330,000. And, sometimes, a bit of time off here and there can prove a blessing in disguise. He is now a full-fledged man of a horse. He's big, he's balanced, he has that nice long neck. He carries close to 1,200 lbs, but he carries it properly: he's a smooth mover. He's just that word 'class'.”

Stall supervised a copybook campaign with Blame, as an older horse, showing himself adept at working back from a target. And if the goalposts are liable to keep moving this summer, then the knowledge that Tom's d'Etat tends to “land running” is a big asset.

It's the rest of the barn that shares a wider flux, most of them biding their time at the Fair Grounds pending access to Churchill. Stall is already in Louisville, in fact, safely quarantined ahead of the green light for his New Orleans team.

In the meantime, he speaks warmly of the way his crew is rising to the challenge; and likewise of his clients. “All the years I've been doing this, I've always said I'd rather have good owners than good horses,” he says. “Obviously the perfect combination is a good owner with a good horse, so we keep working at that! But while nobody can prepare for a time like this, my owners have been spectacular. There's been no stress, only support. Nobody saying, 'I'm going to take my horse and turn it out,' or do this, or do that. Actually, the majority of them have asked, 'Is there anything extra I can do, to help your crew?' I feel very fortunate.”

At the best of times, training is about equilibrium; about taking a horse to just the right pitch, without using up its racing surplus. Unprecedented as the situation is, then, it's a variation that represents a legitimate test of skill.

“Well, I guess the proof will be when we start back running, and if those horses show up and run 'A' races,” says Stall. “All I've done is not breeze as much, depending on the type of horse, and space things out a bit. And actually the horses are fine. They don't know about the COVID-19. It's more of the human side of it: managing our crew, keeping everybody healthy and safe.

“The Fair Grounds have been over and above the call of duty, to keep the track open for training. And it's been a great help that we've been able to work right out of a comfortable place, that's been our home barn for years and years. Literally at the drop of a hat, we'll be ready to head back up to Kentucky.”

None of us, of course, can be certain how such momentous, global tides will alter the course of individual lives or careers. It was only a recession, for instance, that diverted Stall from an initial career in the oil industry.

Because even though he was the son of a towering figure in Louisiana racing, his ultimate vocation rather crept up on him. He had been perfectly happy to go away and study geology at Louisiana State University and, in another life, might have been staring out of a Houston office even today.

“I liked working there, and they liked me, and everything was going along fine,” he recalls. “Then the oil business hit a big soft spot, a bit like what's going on now I guess. And the office closed down. That was it. I was young and single, and I'd been working on the racetrack during the holidays for years, so I just went back to work for Frankie Brothers. Who knows what would have happened, if that office had stayed open? But I always had this sport in my heart, no question about it.”

And, above all, the sport in New Orleans. The Stall-Wilson turf track at the Fair Grounds is named for his grandfather (along with his business partner); and his father, likewise an oilman, was chairman of the Louisiana Racing Commission for 16 years. The late Albert M. Stall Sr. was responsible for much modernisation–notably through off-track wagering, Sunday cards and drug-testing-besides racing dozens of stakes winners like Combat Ready (New Orleans H.) and Lady Vi-E (Kentucky Oaks).

So Stall was always steeped in the Bayou racing culture. As a kid, his hotwalking checks were in the name of M.H. and Jack Van Berg; M.H. was Van Berg's Hall of Fame father, Marion. Brothers was assistant trainer then, and it was Stall's father–a patron of the barn–who urged him to risk a solo career.

“Frankie was real reluctant to do it, just because that next step is tough on everybody,” Stall recalls. “Jack was big, strong, intimidating. But a nice guy. Actually, we reconnected in the last years of his life, when he was stabling right next door to me at Churchill Downs. He'd go around in his little motor scooter and stop by and I got a chance to talk to him, about a whole bunch of different things, right there towards the end. It was nice.”

Tom's d'Etat himself, of course, represents another huge name in New Orleans sport–running, as he does, for the widow of Tom Benson, the late owner of both the Saints and Pelicans. Benson died, aged 90, in March 2018, just a few months before the horse bearing his name really got on a roll. But Tom's d'Etat had at least announced his talent by then, with wins at the Fair Grounds, Churchill and Saratoga (twice).

“Mr. Benson was one of the ultimate self-made man from a hardscrabble neighborhood in New Orleans,” recalls Stall affectionately. “And he turned out to be one of the most prolific businessmen in America, owning an NBA team and an NFL team, which is incredible really. He had raced horses 40 years ago, when he had a ranch in Texas, but then went away for a while and amassed his fortune. Later in life, he came back with a vengeance, buying yearlings with myself, Tom Amoss, and Dallas Stewart; and also Greenwood Lodge, a beautiful farm in the Lexington area.”

Gayle Benson has carried on her husband's legacy on the track–indeed, he had operated the stable in her name, as G M B Racing–and Stall is full of praise for her whole team's faith in their slow-burning stable star.

“They're wonderful people,” he enthuses. “They're to be given as much credit as anyone with Tom's d'Etat. They were just fine with everything: with six months here, another six months there. There's a lot of bills involved in that, and they're business people. So they were very patient, and they trusted me and my crew as the boots on the ground. And now it's paying off.

“Mr. Benson was right there in the winner's circle when Tom's d'Etat went very close to the track record in an allowance race at Churchill. And we talk about that all the time now, how he'd be glad the horse is doing what we hoped for him then. I'm sure he's saying, 'We got this horse going like we want, now let's get this football team rolling!'”

In 2010, Benson had presided over the Saints' solitary Super Bowl success–and that year Stall took his hometown's sporting momentum on the road with Blame, trained for Claiborne Farm and Adele B. Dilschneider. The horse's career had such a melodramatic climax that we tend to forget its other peaks, notably running down Quality Road (Elusive Quality) in the GI Whitney H.

“That was a wonderful day,” Stall recalls. “Saratoga had one of those real cool fronts that came down from Canada, so the humidity was light, it was a perfect, beautiful day. All you heard was, 'Quality Road. Quality Road.' But we nailed him in the last couple jumps.”

Though Blame was given the slip by Haynesfield (Speightstown) in the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup, Stall had made sure he had gas in the tank for his showdown with the apparently invincible mare at the Breeders' Cup. Looking back, he admits that he was so consumed by getting his own preparation right that the Zenyatta circus passed him by.

“I mean, obviously, I knew she was going to be an overwhelming favorite,” he says. “But it wasn't like there was any sort of personal rivalry, like LSU playing Alabama or the New Orleans Saints playing the Dallas Cowboys. We'd never crossed paths before. And I underestimated her crowd appeal, for sure. I figured that out when she showed up at Churchill Downs for the first time, and traffic was stopped outside of her barn on the street looking through the fence, just to get a glimpse at her.

“But I was just focused on our horse. We just wanted to get him in the best possible shape to run his best race. All the way through, to the second he walked in the gate, he didn't miss a beat. And we were very confident he'd go out and run his best race. Whether it would be good enough, who knew?

“And then afterwards I didn't notice the quiet crowd that much, because we had our own little eruption in the winner's circle. I mean, there was a ton of New Orleans people there–and they can be a little boisterous! They'd won the Super Bowl earlier that year, and they were yelling, 'Who dat? Who dat?'”

Stall reliably rose above any unworthy recriminations among those who resented Blame. You only have to reflect on the loss, in the meantime, of Garrett Gomez to put the furore into perspective.

“What a great ride by Garrett,” says Stall. “He fired his best shot. To win those races, all these confluences have to come right together. So it was just the perfect day. And Blame is the gift that keeps on giving. He was the perfect horse to train, and laid out every time he ran. And now he's doing better and better at stud, like his sire did, and has a live Derby horse in Nadal.”

Albeit he played his own part immaculately, it would be wrong to measure Stall by that single day. Another horse that will always be special, for instance, is Joyeux Danseur (Nureyev)–who gave him a breakout success in the 1998 Early Times Turf Classic in the silks of B. Wayne Hughes, then still to make his transformative impact as owner of Spendthrift Farm.

“When that horse was right, there wouldn't be many in the world who could beat him,” Stall recalls. “He won his Grade I on Derby day off that hot streak at the Fair Grounds, and his figures were out of this world. And he obviously helped what has become my longest-standing trainer-client relationship. Back then, Wayne was working on his business out of California and, without cell phones, we didn't talk too much in those days. But over the years we've become close with him, his family and his employees. He's got brain power, and he's got the drive. That's a lethal combination, and it's just been great working with these guys.”

Nor should we forget the state legend Star Guitar (Quiet American). To be fair, they did try him in graded races at Churchill and Lone Star, but ultimately everyone was happy to secure him that all-time Louisiana-bred earnings record. He was sound, he was beautiful, he was revered. And now he, too, is doing well at stud. What more could a Louisiana patriot wish for?

Because make no mistake, nothing will please the Tom's d'Etat team more than to round off this dispiriting year with a little New Orleans spice.

“The Fair Grounds have been there since 1872,” says Stall proudly. “It's the third oldest racetrack in America. It's been a great winter race meet over the years, and people have been going there their whole lives. Between my grandfather, father, and me, and now my kids, that's a lot of years there just for my family. It's a very traditional track and tremendous horses have come out of it, and horsemen too. Some great jockeys have come out of Louisiana, as everyone knows. So I have tremendous pride in coming from the area.

“And there's no question Tom's d'Etat is a good story, a feel-good type of horse. The last crop of Smart Strike, and owned by Gayle Benson, and he's such a classy horse–around the barn, and on the racetrack. All the exercise riders go by and want to come and pet him, call him 'champion.' Everybody knows who he is. And he's earned it.”

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