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Alumnus finds labor of love in horse training

It was Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010, and excitement was in the air.  The sun had set, the lights were on, and the stands were packed.  ESPN was broadcasting from the historic venue, and fans across the country – across the world – were watching, wondering if there would be an upset.  There was.

Breeders’ Cup Classic                  Breeders’ Cup Classic Breeders’ Cup Classic Breeders' Cup Classic

But it wasn’t the LSU-Alabama football game in Tiger Stadium, although the Tigers did upset Bama that night.  It was the Breeders’ Cup Classic horse race, in which a 4-year-old colt named Blame, trained by LSU alumnus Al Stall Jr., upset the favorite, a legendary mare named Zenyatta, to win one of horse racing’s biggest events.

“It was like Tiger Stadium on Saturday night,” Stall said of storied Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby and host of the Breeders’ Cup Classic that night.  “Churchill had put in lights and the race was at night.  There were 72,000 people there, and when you threw in the ‘Zenyatta factor,’ the drama was off the charts.  They say LSU’s record at night is better than during the day, and after what I went through, I understand.  There’s so much more drama when it’s dark.  The night time really kicks it up.” 

The 1984 LSU graduate said having his horse win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Thoroughbred racing’s most prestigious global event and the largest purse in American horse racing, is “without question” the high point of his career.  “I’ve been very close to the mountain top with the Breeders’ Cup Classic win,” he said.

But horse racing wasn’t the only sport that Stall was worried about on that fateful day last November.  He is an LSU football season-ticket holder, and even during the biggest moment of his horse racing career, he had his eye on that LSU-Alabama game.  He and a group of friends -- all LSU fans and alumni – were in a suite on Breeders’ Cup day.  They changed the channel on the TV to the LSU game, and watched the Tigers up until it was time for Blame to run.  Later, Stall got a number of text messages from other LSU friends who had all done the same thing. 

“The Tiger fans were all together in spirit,” he said.  “We stick together.”

His Father’s Son

Stall is a New Orleans native who grew up with both horse racing and LSU football.  His father, Al Stall Sr., served on the Louisiana State Racing Commission for more than 25 years, including 18 years as chairman. He is a prominent horse owner and breeder and is a member of the Fair Grounds Hall of Fame.

“Because of my father’s involvement, I worked at the racetrack while I was in high school and college, during holiday breaks and summers,” Stall said. 

He always loved horses, and relished the time he spent at the Fair Grounds, the venerable New Orleans racetrack that ranks as third-oldest in the nation.  Stall said his family’s love of horse racing is so intense, he has attended the Kentucky Derby every year since 1977 – something that took quite a bit of planning while he was at LSU, since the Derby corresponds with final exams. “It was touch and go a few times with finals,” he laughed. 

But that wasn’t the only sporting event for which the Stall family made time.  LSU football was also a priority.  Stall said his family has had season tickets to Tiger Stadium for more than 50 years, and he can remember traveling from New Orleans to Baton Rouge for games before I-10 was built.  But his attendance record at LSU football is not quite as stellar as his attendance at the Kentucky Derby.  Since becoming a full-time horse trainer, Stall has had to miss some LSU games as he’s traveled to racetracks around the country, from Louisiana and Kentucky to New York and California.  “We’re a Saturday sport, too,” he said of horse racing.

But horse racing and LSU football weren’t the only things that Stall picked up from his father.  He also followed him into the field of geology.

The Horse Trainer is a Geologist

It’s a seemingly unusual combination – geology and horse training – but one that has worked for both Al Stall Jr. and Sr.    

“Dad is a geologist, so I went into that, too,” Stall said. 

He majored in geology at LSU, was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon, and said he couldn’t have had a better time at LSU than he did.  He graduated in 1984 and went to work for Pel-Tex Oil Company in New Orleans and began a career that had absolutely nothing to do with horses.    

After about three years, Pel-Tex was bought by another company and the New Orleans office was shut down.  Stall said he remembers the stress that some of his fellow employees experienced at being laid off, but he said it didn’t bother him a bit.  He packed up his things and went straight back to the track.  

“If that hadn’t happened, I would probably still be in the oil business today,” Stall said. “But when I was laid off, I was fortunate enough to have a background in horse racing, and I had a place to go.  When a business gets soft, you’ve got to go do something different.  I’m happy with my horse career.  I don’t have any regrets.”

Indeed.  Winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic is quite a back-up plan.

Greener Pastures

More than 20 years after leaving the oil business, Stall is training scores of race horses for some of the nation’s top horse breeders.  He works with about 60 horses in Louisiana and Kentucky, and his largest client is world-renowned Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, which was once the home of Triple Crown champion Secretariat.

“Claiborne is my largest client; I’ve got 90-plus percent of their stock, which is great for me,” Stall said.  “They are the biggest, most historic and well-known stallion breeding operation in horse racing worldwide, and they just celebrated their 100th anniversary – the same year that Blame won the Breeders’ Cup.  It was very emotional for the Hancock Family [which owns Claiborne Farm].”

Blame, now 5 years old, has been retired to Claiborne Farm for breeding purposes.  And while none of Stall’s current horses will be competing in any of the upcoming Triple Crown races – the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes -- he has several top prospects on the horizon. 

Currently, his trainee with the most potential is a 3-year-old colt named Bind.  He ran this spring at the Fair Grounds, where he ran the fastest 6-furlong time of the season in the first race of his life.  He will run at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day May 7, although not in the actual Derby itself, and is expected to appear in other important races this summer. 

Then there is Might, a filly who has only run two races so far, finishing first and second, and has captured attention because she’s a full sister to Blame.  Finally, there is a 4-year-old colt named Apart, who won the Super Derby last year at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La., and shows the potential to develop into a top-level horse.

Stall said that prominent horse breeder Adele Dilschneider is part owner with Claiborne Farm on many of the farm’s top horses.  In fact, partnerships on race horses are quite common, and Stall knows of several horses that are partly owned by LSU graduates, such as himself and political consultant James Carville.  

“When you own one, it’s like owning a piece of a team, and when they win, it’s very exciting,” Stall said.  “But they eat while we sleep, so it’s expensive.  Winning a race like the Breeders’ Cup makes it all worth it.  Like a coach, you’re only as good as the talent you have on the field.” 

Labor of Love

Ironically, Stall’s job is no day at the races. 

A husband and father of two, Stall works seven days a week, 365 days a year.  Horses require constant attention, so there are no days off.  He is typically awake by 4:30 a.m., trains with his horses from 6 to 10 a.m., and watches them race in the afternoons until about 5 p.m.  Stall’s horses compete at multiple tracks around the country, so he spends part of his week traveling from one track to another, attending horse sales, and basically working nonstop.

“It takes a lot of organization, a lot of work, and a lot of attention to detail,” Stall said of his job.  “It’s year round; that’s part of the game.  It’s a labor of love.”

Stall said the economic downturn in the past couple of years has been hard on horse racing, but he recommends the sport to those who’ve never watched it.  Anyone who likes competition will enjoy horse racing, he said. 

Stall said he has “peace of mind” now that one of his horses has won a major race like the Breeders’ Cup, but he plans to continue producing more winners, in spite of the competitive nature of the sport.

My money’s on the man from LSU.