Al Stall Jr., about to board a flight for Shreveport on Sept. 4, analyzed the post position drawn by even-money favorite Departing in the $500,000 Super Derby slated for Sept. 7 at Louisiana Downs.
The seven hole in a field of as many puts this West Virginia Derby winner free and clear on the outside, and given his horse's off-the-pace running style and highly regarded reputation going into the 1 ⅛-mile event, as far as Stall's concerned, that's just fine.
"Better when you're the hunted to be a little clear," the trainer said over the phone. "Looks like the two speed horses are directly to his inside, so he certainly should be able to get over a couple paths and find a good stride."
With an 8 ¾-length rout in the Aug. 3 West Virginia Derby, also run at nine panels, Departing redeemed himself from a sixth-place Preakness run for Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider. That was the only real flaw on a record that began with a three-race win streak and includes a third in the Louisiana Derby and a solid Illinois Derby score.
Stall has the 3-year-old War Front gelding primed for another strong effort, and has seen the increase in maturity one would expect in a sophomore runner as the seasons have turned.
"He came out of the West Virginia Derby really well, he's trained great, he's acted like a horse that's improved from that race," Stall said. "That's exciting. He showed us the same thing coming out of the Preakness to the West Virginia Derby, which turned out well."
The Preakness, Stall said, was a case of a runner in the deep end -- and Departing's record shows more talent than that one off day.
"He didn't run his race in the Preakness," the trainer remarked. "He ran for about 70 perfect of the race, but the track was very deep that day and he didn't have that seasoning to go a mile and three sixteenths on a track that was lengths off par against those kind of horses. Oxbow had run like 12 or 13 times, the second-place horse had run a bunch, so had the third-place horse, and Departing had run like five times.
"He just got absolutely exhausted, but that race sure helped get him fit for the second part of the year. I gave him a little breather, might have been 2-3 weeks from the race until his first breeze back."
Departing turned in his final move for the Super Derby Sept. 2 at Churchill Downs, going a half mile in :49 2/5. He'll have Robby Albarado in the irons, who seeks his third victory in the track's richest race. He won the Super Derby with B. Wayne Hughes' My Pal Charlie in 2008, who ran a stakes-record 1:48.36 while defeating Grade 1 winner Macho Again by 4 ¼ lengths, and also won with Apart for Claiborne and Dilschneider in 2010.
Shadwell Stable's Bashaar, fourth-place finisher in the July 27 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, is one who appears a legitimate threat to Departing. The hard-charging Street Cry colt was behind Palace Malice, Will Take Charge, and Moreno, three who came back to run well in the Travers Stakes, with Will Take Charge and Moreno the one-two finishers.
Earlier in the year, late-closing Bashaar caught a flier on a sloppy sealed track in a 1 1/16-mile allowance at Oaklawn Park, coming from far behind and drawing away to win by 13 lengths. That April 4 victory was his most recent score for trainer Danny Peitz, after which he ran second in the Prairie Mile Stakes at Prairie Meadows en route to a third there in the Iowa Derby. Channing Hill has the mount from the rail on the 7-2 second choice.
The Super Derby's traditional prep, the Aug. 3 Prelude Stakes, produced a thrilling finish in which Carter Thoroughbreds and Joe Offolter's Holiday Mischief edged favorite Sunbean by a head at odds of 16-1. Trained by Joe Offolter, the son of Into Mischief earned his first stakes victory that afternoon and returns here in search of a grade. He has drawn post 2 with Cliff Berry, winner of the 2007 Super Derby aboard Going Ballistic, and is listed at 10-1 on the morning line.
Holiday Mischief and Departing met once before when Departing won the Texas Heritage Stakes at Sam Houston in March by 2 ¾-lengths, with Holiday Mischief second.
Owners Gary and Mary West and trainer Wayne Catalano send out a two-pronged attack with Cameo Appearance and Treasury Bill. The former, to be ridden by Patrick Valenzuela from post 6, is a lightly raced colt who exits a runner-up finish in the Aug. 17 Straight Line at Arlington Park, his first try against stakes company. He makes his dirt debut here.
Treasury Bill bids to rekindle his early season magic with Richard Eramia in the irons from the 4 hole. He had a brief stay on the Triple Crown trail that included a second-place finish in the San Vicente at Santa Anita Park.
Rounding out the Super Derby field are Matthew Rebro, Jr. and Frank Coniglio's stakes winning Ruler of Love, a Peace Rules colt trained by Joan Scott who finished a well-beaten second in the West Virginia Derby last time; and William Harris and Donald Guinn's Runaway Stephen, who enters off a third-place finish in the Prelude for trainer Joey Foster.
The Super Derby has been the premier event at Louisiana Downs since its inception in 1980. Champion and Belmont Stakes winner Temperence Hill took that first edition and the $500,000 race has attracted a solid list of top three-year-olds since. Included in the Super Derby roll call of winners are three colts who went on to earn Horse of the Year honors: Alysheba, Sunday Silence, and Tiznow. The Super Derby will be the centerpiece of a stakes-packed thirteen race card on Saturday that features six stakes races with more than $950,000 in total purses and a $100,000 guaranteed Pick 4 beginning with Race 8.