CHESTER - Decades ago, bettors would have doubted the chances of a 3-year-old making a major stakes start after a 2-month hiatus. But there will be plenty of wagering support for Departing in Saturday's Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Caino, Racetrack and Resort.
Departing hasn't run since his unplaced effort in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 18. It wasn't a bad effort, though, and it's the only try to date when he hasn't hit the board.
From six starts, Departing has gained four victories a placing and purse earnings of $628,000. He broke his maiden at first asking at Fair Grounds in late December, scored in allowance company in February, and the following month was a 2 -length winner of the Texas Heritage Stakes at Sam Houston Race Park.
READY TO RUN — Departing, seen here winning the Texas Heritage Stakes at Sam Houston Race Park, will run in Saturday’s West Virginia Derby. -- Coady Photography
He finished a solid third in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on March 30. And he was a 3-length winner of the Grade 3 Illinois at Hawthorne on April 20. Both races were run at the 1 1/8-mile West Virginia Derby distance.
"In the old days, they didn't offer pots that were worth three-quarters of a million dollars," said Al Stall Jr., Departing's trainer. "There was a sense of (financial) urgency to run a horse. A trainer has more of an opportunity nowadays to let a young horse develop. Departing is a gelding. We plan to keep him competing for quite a few years."
The 51-year-old Stall doesn't have a huge blip on the national radar screen. But he's been conditioning racehorses for well over two decades, and is undeniably good at what he does.
As of Friday, Stall's career statistics included 6,368 starts, from which he has registered 1,256 wins, for a strike rate of 19.7 percent. His stakes win total stood at 138, two dozen of which have occurred in graded events.
Stall was born and grew up in New Orleans, where people have been betting races since the days when Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte were fending off the British. Stall is a son and grandson of thoroughbred owners and breeders. His father chaired the Louisiana Racing Commission for 18 years.
In 2010, Stall sent out Blame to hand Zenyatta her only career defeat, in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. The 4-year-old colt subsequently received the Eclipse Award as champion of his division. Some Eclipse voters thought he deserved Horse of the Year, an honor that went Zenyatta.
Blame was a homebred owned by the partnership of Claiborne Farm and Adele B. DilSchneider.
The same is true of Departing, who is by the Claiborne stallion War Front. Departing's dam, Leave, did not win her only career start. But she, in turn, is out of the stakes-winning mare Tour, whose produce further includes a trio of black-type winners.
In 2008, Stall sent out the 6-1 shot My Pal Charlie to a fifth-place finish in the West Virginia Derby. The following month, the colt was a 4-length winner of the Grade 2 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs.
That same year, Stall won the Mountaineer Juvenile Stakes on the West Virginia Derby undercard with Terrain. And he won the Mountaineer Juvenile again with Maybe So in 2012. He's two-for-three at the Hancock County track, and with Departing is looking to make it three-for-four.
Departing looked sharp in a five-furlong workout on the Saratoga training track on July 22. His previous race efforts have all come with Brian Hernandez Jr. aboard, but Robbie Albarado will be Departing's jockey in the West Virginia Derby.
Albarado, age 39, was the pilot for the 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft. He's had four prior West Virginia Derby mounts, and finished second with One Bold Stroke (to Da Devil) in 1998; and second again with Exhi (to Concord Point) in 2010.
He's twice been victorious on the Derby undercard. Albarado won the 2007 West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker's Cup with Buckeye Buddy; and he won the 2010 West Virginia Senate President's Stakes with Kiss Mine.
No horse has ever won the West Virginia Derby immediately following a layoff from competition of 76 days. But Stall's confident. And this team knows the game.