(Trainer Al Stall, Jr. / Photo Courtesy of the Fair Grounds)
Stall expects to have more runners at Ellis Park
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 Ellis Park 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 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, Grade 3 RUNHAPPY Turf Sprint.
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’ Grade 3 Regret Stakes. Dalika is owned by Louisville’s Paul Varga, the retired CEO and chairman of the Brown-Forman, the global wine and spirits company.
Ellis Park’s purses, scheduled to average $250,000 a day, aren’t as high as last year’s record level following the COVID-forced shutdown of business for almost three months. However, 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.”
Jimmy McNerney resumes another role: broadcast analyst
Jimmy McNerney, Ellis Park’s announcer who also does the morning line and race selections for the program, is resuming his role as pre-race analyst from his booth. Rocco O’Connor, the paddock analyst the past two years, has left horse racing.
McNerney also is the race-caller at Turfway Park during the winter and a top jockey agent at Indiana Grand. He believes having a bird’s-eye view of so many races helps him in his handicapping.
“I think I have unique insight just from my other duty as announcer,” said McNerney, who had been the Ellis broadcast analyst several years ago and also holds that position at Turfway Park. “Not that other people can’t see it on replays, but I do catch stuff. I watch the horses on the gallop-out, whereas the normal replay stops and goes back to odds or slow-mo finish. I can see them galloping out. I watch all that stuff, really critique a race. When I prepare, I watch the last couple of replays of most horses, not only for handicapping purposes but I do it also because sometimes you need the pronunciation of a name. Probably being an announcer gives me a little more insight.
“And I’m so close to all those people down there that I have a lot of insight with the local horsemen. I know how horses are training. I hope I can bring a little more educated angles.”