SARATOGA SPRINGS, N. Y. — He had felt the pull and known the allure firsthand, and so Al Stall, Jr., realized “there was no talking these guys” out of running in the Jim Dandy (G2) Saturday. Nor was he inclined to try, having himself authored one of the more stunning upsets in recent Saratoga history. After all, this is what the game’s about, what Saratoga’s about: nurturing and following dreams. And so in the Jim Dandy he’ll send out Masqueparade, the first racehorse owned by a group of guys from New Orleans united by their hometown, their Catholic education and, of course, a dream.
As a youngster growing up in New Orleans, Stall thought of Saratoga as a “mythical place,” he explained, the sort of place you could only read about, inhabited by bigger-than-life characters, with outsized ambitions and appetites, a storied place redolent with heroic and dramatic achievement. Just down the road from Camelot.
In John Morrissey’s Club House, John “Bet-a-Million” Gates and Cornelius Vanderbilt rolled the dice. This celebrated spa was where Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell sparkled, where Jack Dempsey trained, Damon Runyon wrote, Man o’ War lost and Jim Dandy won, a mythical place surely. And among the many pilgrims drawn to Saratoga in the early 1980s were two recent graduates from LSU, Stall and Tom Amoss. Both, of course, would become very successful trainers, but back then they were wide-eyed adventurers looking to flesh out the stories they had heard and the preconceptions they had formed.
With lodgings in the Reading Room, a private men’s club adjacent to the racetrack on Union Avenue, they immersed themselves in the culture of the place and learned its ways, from the Egyptian handshake that could secure a table in the dining room to the assessment of wiseguy workout information that could reveal a winner — or a loser. But even when the historic and romantic associations yielded to a vivid reality, the allure remained as strong as ever.
And so it is today. Morrissey’s Club House has become a museum, and the 100-1 long shot that once beat Gallant Fox has bequeathed his name to Saturday’s prep for the Travers (G1). The races and horses that not too long ago a youngster in New Orleans could only read about are seen in real time on various platforms and on national broadcasts. It’s not a mythical place anymore, but there’s still no place like Saratoga, its charm immutable and its allure magnetic. The breeze has an encouraging, inspirational touch; the early morning sunshine lands softly, filtered by oak trees. And the air, rife with expectation, is shared with some of the most talented and accomplished racehorses in the world. If there’s a horse racing Mecca, this is it.
So there was no talking the owners of Masqueparade out of running their horse in the Jim Dandy. Next weekend’s West Virginia Derby (G3) at Mountaineer was an option, but, well, this is Saratoga.
“I’ve been following the races my whole life,” said Bill Babin, who put together the ownership group, FTGGG, “and ever since I’ve been coming up here to Saratoga I’ve wanted to get involved. It took me five years to get together enough guys who would put up enough money to buy a yearling.”
Or two yearlings, as it turned out. Each partner contributed $25,000. Out of the Keeneland September sale, they bought an Honor Code colt for $25,000 and an Upstart colt for $180,000. The son of Honor Code they named Thirtyminutemass; he won in the third start of his career. The Upstart colt, who has a mask-shaped blaze, became Masqueparade; he has won three consecutive races, including, most recently, the Ohio Derby (G3).
The subtle irony of a bankruptcy attorney’s aspirations to own racehorses wasn’t lost on Babin, who originally wanted to call his group AMDG, an abbreviation of “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam,” the motto of the Jesuits. It seemed appropriate since most of the guys in the group, like Babin, had graduated from Jesuit High School. But when consulted on the subject of borrowing the motto for sporting purposes, well, a priest discouraged him from using it — lightning bolts were never mentioned. And so instead he went with the English translation: “For the greater glory of God,” or FTGGG.
Babin expressed the highest regard for Essential Quality, the Belmont Stakes (G1) winner who’ll be heavily favored Saturday, but Masqueparade, he said, has continued to improve ever since the “light went on in the horse’s head,” and he indeed deserves a chance against the champion. That light came on, as Babin put it, in Masqueparade’s fourth start, which he won by disqualification. And then it became a flood light on Kentucky Derby (G1) day at Churchill Downs when he romped in an allowance affair by nearly 12 lengths.
“I had no earthly idea that would happen,” Stall said about the overwhelming performance. “We thought we had a good chance to win it, but we didn’t see that coming. …He was just running against the clock. And then in the Ohio Derby he was running against some warm bodies, good horses; so that was even more impressive.”
Big and strong, Masqueparade was somewhat “sleepy” when he began his career, Stall said. He was lackadaisical, slow to learn the meaning or the objective of all this running in circles. His first few races, viewed in quick succession, look like a four-step program for becoming a racehorse: He ran into trouble and traffic, raced wide, lugged in. But he always showed talent. In his debut, for example, he got shuffled back at the start, far back, but he rallied four-wide and made up 10 lengths while running the final quarter-mile in about 23 seconds, and then he galloped out beyond the winner.
Scouting the opposition, Stall said Essential Quality has looked “perfect” in his training at Saratoga and will be “super hard to beat.” He’s a “legitimate 3-5 favorite.”
In other words, he’s about as formidable as Quality Road looked to be going into the 2010 Whitney (G1) here at Saratoga. Undefeated for the season, Quality Road had won three consecutive stakes — the Hal’s Hope (G3), the Donn (G1) and the Metropolitan (G1). A fourth victory was, Stall recalled, “a foregone conclusion” in the eyes of most observers, and so Quality Road was the 1-2 favorite in a field of six, his chances enhanced even more by a lack of pace. Stall sent out Blame, a big, strong improving colt who had won the Stephen Foster (G1).
Quality Road looked like a winner from the start. He took possession of the pace, leading through a casual half-mile in :48.06, and carried a clear advantage into the lane. Blame rallied, swinging to the outside for the drive, but was still two lengths back in mid-stretch. In the final eighth of a mile, Blame surged as if he understood perfectly his business and knew precisely the location of the wire, where he stuck his head in front. Blame, of course, would win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) two races later and be named a champion. And that Whitney was horse racing at its best, the sort of stirring finish that not too long ago, in young imaginations, could have excited dreams about a mythical place called Saratoga.
Stall has been coming here with his stable for 25 years. No longer the wide-eyed adventurer, he has become a regular, his accomplishments interwoven with Saratoga’s fabric. And when he says, “Masqueparade is training well and deserves a shot,” he does so as someone who has stood at the center of the extraordinary confluence of dreams and history and great racing that makes Saratoga unique.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.