NEW ORLEANS — Few honor the traditions of horse racing more than Seth Hancock and Al Stall Jr.
But Hancock, owner of Claiborne Farm, and New Orleanian Stall, trainer of Claiborne’s Departing, will happily play the role of spoilers in Saturday’s Preakness as they try to knock off Kentucky Derby winner Orb in the second leg of the Triple Crown.
“Well, here we are again wearing the black hat,” said Hancock, who teamed with Stall to forge Blame’s upset of unbeaten Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders Cup Classic. “Everybody says the world needs a Triple Crown winner, so everybody’s going to be rooting for Orb like they were for Zenyatta.
“But we’re going to doing everything we can for our horse and just let the chips fall where they may.”
Departing, which did not run in the Kentucky Derby, put himself into the Preakness conversation with a 3¼-length victory in the Grade 3 Illinois Derby on April 20. Vegas Winn’s early odds on the Preakness have Departing as a 3-1 second choice to Orb at 7-5.
But Stall, a third generation horseman like Hancock, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Orb as even money or better by race time.
“The Derby favorite is usually the favorite in the Preakness unless you have unusual circumstances like Mine That Bird,” Stall said. “And Orb was the best horse that day.
“He’s strictly the horse to beat. I have no idea whether we can beat him or not.”
This is only the second Preakness start — for that matter, only the second Triple Crown start — for Stall, a member of the Fair Grounds Hall of Fame who has three trainers titles at his hometown track. That previous Preakness for Stall was in 2009 when Terrain finished seventh behind eventual Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandria.
Pimlico, where the Preakness is run, has a special place in Stall’s heart, as does the state of Maryland.
It was at Pimlico that Blame, then a lightly raced four-year-old, began his drive toward the Breeders Cup with a victory in the Grade III William Donald Schaefer Handicap on Preakness Day.
And Baltimore is the hometown of Stall’s wife, Nicole, although the two met at Saratoga, where she was working with Maryland horse dealer Jerry Stautberg.
“Nicole will probably get more attention this week than I will,” said Stall, who will also have Tread running in Friday’s Miss Preakness at Pimlico.
That will change if Departing can pull the upset.
The gelding son of War Front, Departing has four victories in five starts, all with Brian Hernandez Jr. aboard, as he will be Saturday.
Departing’s only defeat was in the Louisiana Derby, where he finished third behind Revolutionary and Mylute.
Those two were third and fifth respectively in the Kentucky Derby. Golden Soul, fourth to Departing in the Louisiana Derby, was a surprising second to Orb. Golden Soul, trained by New Orleanian Dallas Stewart, is skipping the Preakness to aim for the Belmont, as is Revolutionary plus the other four Todd Pletcher-trained horses that were in the Kentucky Derby.
But Mylute, trained by New Orleanian Tom Amoss, Stall’s best friend since they roomed together at LSU, is taking another shot at Orb. Amoss, primarily known as one who builds his stable through claimers, famously doesn’t poach from Stall.
“Tom and I have hooked up, hundreds, maybe thousands of times,” Stall said. “But never in something like this.
“We haven’t talked much about it, but it makes it a little more exciting.”
The connections between Departing and Orb are just as strong.
They were born five weeks apart at Claiborne Farm and were stabled in the same barn for the first 10 months of their lives.
Orb was eventually sold to the Phipps and Janney families, longtime clients of the Hancocks, while the Hancocks kept a co-ownership of Departing along with Adele Dilschneider.
The Preakness matchup reminds many of the rivalry between Phipps’ Seeking the Gold and Claiborne’s Forty Niner in the late 1980s.
“We feel like we’ve got two horses in the race,’ Hancock said. “We can win either way.
“I know I’d take those two against the field.”
As Stall likes to do, especially with geldings, he brought Departing along slowly, racing him only once as a two-year-old in a December maiden race at the Fair Grounds that he won by 1¼ lengths. Two more victories early this year came before the Louisiana Derby.
Departing’s third-place finish that day put him within reach of the Kentucky Derby under the new points system. But Stall and Claiborne already had made the decision that Departing was not ready for that race and might be better suited for the Preakness if he ran well in the Illinois Derby.
In fact, Departing wasn’t even initially nominated for the Triple Crown, and it took the suggestion of Seth Hancock’s son, Walker to his father that they pay the $6,000 secondary entry fee. If they had waited until after the Illinois Derby, it would have been $100,000.
“Seth Hancock has never had Derby fever, and he will never have Derby fever,” Stall said. “We’re looking for longevity out of Departing.
“We’re just trying to do what’s right by the horse.”
Patience is also a Stall trademark and a reason why he first became associated with Claiborne Farm through now-retired Hall of Fame trainer Frankie Brothers.
The relationship has continued to the point where Stall trains most of Claiborne’s horses at the Fair Grounds, Churchill Downs and Saratoga.
“Al really respects the horses and lets them develop on their own without ever rushing them,” Hancock said. “We never rush our stallions as two-year-olds because we want them to have four-year-old careers.
“Al is perfect for those kind or horses, and that’s why he’s led Departing to the Preakness.”
Likewise, Stall said he is honored to be with the Hancocks.
“They’re great horse people,” he said. “They take the good with the bad.
“If we tell them the horse is hurt or he’s slow, they understand. They never have unrealistic expectations about a horse.”
That includes Departing, even though his development over the past two months points toward a contending effort Saturday.
“We know that Orb is a better horse than the one we’ve got,” he said. “But stranger things have happened, so we shall see.”
However, Shug McGaughey, Orb’s trainer, is certainly respectful of Departing’s potential.
“Departing’s a pretty darn nice horse, and Al’s bringing him along in the right way,” he said. “If he can get on an easy lead, then he’s going to be hard to catch.”
Either way, Stall is both excited and realistic about the potential for Saturday.
Although winning the Breeder’s Club Classic is technically the pinnacle in the sport, the public mainly pays attention just to the Triple Crown.
“The Classic’s the Classic,” he said. “But this is a little bit more, especially since the Kentucky Derby winner will be there and we’re trying to stop him.
“We have so much respect Shug and the Phipps and Janney families. But we’re sure going to rain on their parade if we can.”