Louisville-based trainer Al Stall Jr., who won last Saturday’s Grade 2 Stephen Foster with leading older horse Tom’s d’Etat, hasn’t been much of a presence at Ellis Park in recent years. But look to see more of Stall’s horses shipping from Churchill Downs to run at the Henderson, Ky., track this meet.
Stall’s main base for most of the year is Churchill Downs, with a second division at Louisiana Downs near Shreveport during the summer. The trainer long has sent horses to Saratoga after Churchill’s spring meet, the horses he left in Louisville mostly being those getting time off or 2-year-olds preparing for the fall.
“We’ll ‘race and return’ at Ellis Park with some of the horses we have here that don’t go to New York and are ready to run and fit over there,” Stall said recently at Churchill Downs. “It will be more than years past because we’re not racing in Louisiana this summer, so all the horses are located in the Louisville area. I imagine … we might get 12-15 starts or something like that during the Ellis meet. Looking forward to it.”
Stall ran four horses at Ellis last summer, winning a maiden race with Brie’s Lucky Charm. He acknowledged that COVID-19 makes staying home that much more appealing.
“My mindset, my natural way of feeling about it, I just want to stay a little more parochial than I normally would,” he said. “And yet, we’re going to New York with some; I think it’s my 25th year going up there. But a trip to Ellis and back is nothing that worries me as far as coronavirus.”
Stall said he wishes he had a late-developing 3-year-old for the Ellis Park Derby, but he expects to participate in Kentucky Downs Preview Day, the five $100,000 turf stakes designed as stepping stones to Kentucky Downs’ September meet. Among them: the 4-year-old Real News, who is 4-2-1 in nine starts, including winning Sam Houston Race Park’s $100,000 Frontier Utilities Turf Sprint. Stall says he’ll be pointed toward the Runhappy Preview Turf Sprint, whose winner gets a fees-paid spot in Kentucky Downs’ $700,000, Runhappy Turf Sprint (G3).
Stall said 4-year-old filly Dalika could target the Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Sprint, with the 3-year-old filly In Good Spirits possible for the Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Turf after finishing third in Churchill Downs’ Regret Stakes (G3).
Ellis Park’s purses, scheduled to average $250,000 a day, aren’t as high as last year’s record level after the COVID-forced shutdown of business for almost three months. But they still are the best in the Midwest and better than all but a few tracks racing in the summer.
“My father was a lifetime horse-racing guy, and he always told me that the purses drive the game. Period. End of story,” Stall said. “Ellis’ purses got going and people participated; there are great horses in the state of Kentucky this time of the year — especially the young ones. It’s no surprise that it has turned into a good springboard for bigger things in the fall.”
Ellis’ already deep jockey colony is adding for the first time two-time Eclipse Award-winner Julien Leparoux, 2010 Preakness winner (on Lookin At Lucky) and four-time Breeders’ Cup winner Martin Garcia and prominent riders Joe Talamo and Colby Hernandez. In addition, 4,000-race winner Rafael Bejarano, a two-time Ellis Park riding champ, is returning after 13 years in California.
“It’s going to be a Who’s Who,” Stall said. “It’s going to be a track to keep your eye on. The 2-year-old maiden races, the turf maidens and some of those upper-level races will have some top-of-the-line horses and riders. I’m glad they’re back up and running and everybody accepts the numbers. They’re trying as hard as they can from the purse levels. They’ll have a great summer.”