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Triumphant Stall, Trainer of Blame, Back at Fair Grounds

Trainer Al Stall Jr was back at his Fair Grounds barn Monday morning, two days after his star horse Blame upset the previously unbeaten mare Zenyatta in North America’s richest race, the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. In a stretch run that’s being described as one of the most thrilling ever, Adele B. Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm’s Blame won by a nose after holding off a late charge by Zenyatta, who had closed from as much as 15 lengths behind. The Classic was the final race for both horses.

For Stall, a New Orleans native, the Classic was by far the biggest win of his 19-year training career. Sitting at a desk in the office of his Fair Grounds barn Monday, the 49-year-old trainer was still in awe of Blame’s season, which also included Grade I wins in the Stephen Foster and Whitney handicaps.

“Everything has been great since around mid-April really, to be quite honest with you,” Stall said. “That’s when it was almost like a switch was flipped. You make a long-term plan for a horse and it usually doesn’t work out, for a number of reasons – either the horse’s soundness or the fact that you think your horses are better than they really are.”

Blame’s 2010 campaign was mapped out by Stall and Claiborne Farm President Seth Hancock last December, a few weeks before Blame arrived at Fair Grounds to prepare for his 4-year-old season.

“Seth sat right here at this desk about December 1 and said, ‘Lead-up race, the Foster, the Whitney, the Jockey Club, the Breeders’ Cup, Horse of the Year, Claiborne Farm,’” Stall remembered. “That’s what he said and that’s what we’re now very close to doing.”

The debate over who should be Horse of the Year will rage on until the Eclipse Awards are announced Jan. 17 in Miami Beach, Fla. Zenyatta won five straight Grade I races against fillies and mares and missed adding a second Classic by a head. Blame, meanwhile, won four of five starts, topped off by Saturday’s peak effort in the most important race of the year and his only head-to-head matchup with Zenyatta. 

The lone blemish on Blame’s 2010 record was a runner-up finish in the Oct. 10 Jockey Club Gold Cup, when front-running Haynesfield was allowed to dictate an unusually slow pace and cruised unchallenged to a four-length win.

“We were prepping for the Breeders’ Cup but we were there to win, without question,” Stall said. “He hadn’t run in eight weeks and might have softened up on us a hair. And then the type of race and the way the track was configured for a mile-and-a-quarter (starting midway on the Clubhouse turn at Belmont Park). It stung for a while but we knew that the race served its purpose. The way he was training we knew he wouldn’t go over the top. He just looked and trained like a good horse all the time.”

The low-key Stall said there was no raucous celebration the night Blame secured the $2.7 million winner’s share of the purse. Instead, the trainer and his family did the same thing a lot of racing fans did Saturday evening – they went home and watched the Classic replay a few more times on TiVo.

Stall will remain at Fair Grounds for the time being, overseeing a full barn of 50 horses preparing for the 139th Thoroughbred Season that opens Thanksgiving Day, with the possible exception of a brief return to Churchill Downs if Super Derby winner Apart runs in the Nov. 26 Grade I Clark Handicap against older horses.