It was two weeks before the running of the 139th Kentucky Derby and yet few eyes or ears were turned toward Cicero, Illinois and Hawthorne Race Course.
[cleeng_content id="854398582" description="Read it now!" price="0.15" t="article"]Hawthorne was hosting the Illinois Derby, a Grade III race at nine furlongs for three-year-olds which might still have notions of getting to the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Albert Stall, Jr. had the lightly-raced Departing in the eight-horse field. The race program listed the cinnamon-colored colt with odds of 7-2. By race time his odds were only 19-10 after the public had gone over his background of only four races.
He had been third in the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. His only other stakes race had produced a win in the Texas Heritage at Houston.
Other than his skimpy race record, Departing’s background and pedigree had plenty of stars to see.
His sire is War Front and his granddaddies are Danzig and Pulpit. A generation before those two were Northern Dancer, A.P. Indy, Forty Niner and Rubiano.
Stall was training Departing for the noted Claiborne Farm in Kentucky and thoroughbred owner Adele Dilschneider.
With the Kentucky Derby only two weeks ahead and Departing having only four lifetime races, Stall was preparing for a possible try in the Preakness Stakes at Old Hilltop (Pimlico) in Baltimore.
The Illinois Derby field didn’t have the same robust competitors like Departing had seen in the Louisiana Derby where he finished behind Revolutionary and Mylute, both of which were challengers in the Kentucky Derby.
With jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. handling the reins, Departing was well-positioned in midpack until swinging free when the home stretch welcomed the field. He quickly dispatched the pacesetters and romped through the final furlongs, winning by over three lengths on the fast track at Hawthorne.
When the muscular colt came out of the Illinois Derby with no physical problems, his path was aimed toward a possible try in the Triple Crown’s second jewel, the Preakness on May 18.
Stall has never trained a thoroughbred which has won any Triple Crown race.
His most noteworthy accomplishment was edging the unbeaten Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. He did that with Blame.
The 51-year-old trainer is the son and grandson of thoroughbred owners and breeders. His father is in the Fair Grounds Hall of Fame and was actually the chairman of the Louisiana Racing Commission for 28 years.
Stall worked at the Fair Grounds while in high school and during summers when he was attending LSU majoring in geology.
During his high school vacation time, he worked for trainer Frank Brothers, who cared for Jack Van Berg’s thoroughbreds at Fair Grounds.
Immediately after college, he went to work for an oil company, but after the company was sold he went back to racing and back to working for Brothers, by then a fulltime trainer on his own.
“It was either go to the racetrack or go to graduate school, and I wasn’t going to do that, “ Stall said when asked about his decision to return to racing.
Staying with Brothers for five years, Stall eventually went out on his own in 1981, starting with one horse at Arlington Park in Illinois.
Departing comes to the Preakness with a month between his races. It would be another large step forward should he be entered. His races have been a win in a maiden special weight event, then another win in an allowance race. And those two were followed by the Texas Heritage.
Three races. Three wins.
After the third place in the Louisiana Derby, he won the Illinois Derby at one-mile-and-one-eighth.
The Preakness would be his longest race.
A career with only five races is one where learning and getting more comfortable are still on Departing’s script of homework.
His schooling just might be continued in 10 days against Kentucky Derby champion, Orb, and the others in the Preakness field.