Al Stall Jr. believes Departing is a grade I horse, and on Aug. 2 he'll try to prove it in the $1.5 million Whitney Handicap.
The 4-year-old War Front gelding, bred and owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, has won seven of 11 starts but never a grade I race before. He finished off the board in last year's Preakness Stakes won by Oxbow and finished third, beaten just two lengths in the June 14 Stephen Foster Handicap, in his only other tries at that level.
Stall, who saddled 2010 Whitney winner Blame to victory over Zenyatta in that year's Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), feels Saturday could be the day when Departing hits a career-best in the prestigious 1 1/8-mile Whitney at Saratoga Race Course. The upstate New York oval, Stall said, is Departing's favorite place to train.
"He trains well everywhere, but last year as a 3-year-old he took it to another level for some reason (training at Saratoga)," said the 52-year-old New Orleans native. "We breezed him two weeks before the West Virginia Derby (gr. II) over the Oklahoma training track and the clockers said it was the best work of the season and then he ran a great race down there (prevailing by 8 3/4 lengths).
"He came up this year and kind of repeated the same thing. His breeze two weeks ago going five-eighths for the Whitney was something to behold. He gives you a little confidence going in the way he seems to like it around here."
Departing was clocked five furlongs in a bullet 1:00.24 July 18 over Saratoga's main track. He came back July 26 with a half-mile breeze in :48.79.
Besides the Preakness attempt last year, Stall kept Departing out of the major races—opting to try and make cash with him instead—and it worked as Departing earned $1,380,100 in 2013.
"He's a gelding. You're not trying to make a stallion," Stall explained. "We tried the Preakness and that didn't work for a number of reasons. So after that we decided to try and make money with him and go to those second-tier Derbies and it worked out very well for us."
Departing won the Illinois Derby (gr. III) along with the West Virginia Derby and the Super Derby (gr. II) in 2013. After tiring to fourth in the Oklahoma Derby (gr. III) Sept. 29, he was sent back to Claiborne near Paris, Ky., to rest and prepare for his 4-year-old campaign.
"After such a good season last year we said, 'Well, give him a good freshening during the winter and point for second half of the season, and see what we have,' and he's been right on schedule," Stall said. "Third race back off of his extended freshening and he seems to be ready for a top effort from what we can see."
Departing enjoyed the time off, according to Stall.
"He was absolutely let down," he said. "He was barefoot in the field at Claiborne Farm in the month of October and November. So he really got let down; it's not like he was in training or at a training center. He had no weight on his back, no shoes on, nothing, so he really started back from scratch, so I would have to think the third race is the one you're looking at."
In his return to the races, Departing won an allowance race at Churchill Downs April 30 before finishing third, beaten two lengths in the Stephen Foster.
"The Stephen Foster was his second race in eight and half months and his first race around two turns (this year)," Stall said. "He went from just an allowance race into that race. I think he acquitted himself quite well. He had the lead between calls in the stretch, and he got a little heavy right there toward the end. It did knock him down, but I think it built him up a little bit. I think he's ready for a big race."