It seems appropriate that graded stakes winners Departing and Medal Count share a shedrow this season. Because, to the angst of the trainer charged with righting both ships, their careers have become mirror images.
Both were expected last season to enjoy top-level success. Neither delivered.
And so, Departing and Medal Count now share career crossroads as the stablemates are slated to start in Saturday's Grade II, $200,000 Firecracker going 1 mile on the turf, the headline race on closing night of the Churchill Downs Spring Meet.
Trainer Al Stall Jr. would love for the evening to end with at least one of them rewarding his patience.
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Departing, the 3-1 second choice on the morning line, and Medal Count, who is wheeling back a week after finishing last in his season debut at Churchill last Saturday, are part of a nine-horse Firecracker lineup that also features graded stakes winners Skyring and Frac Daddy aiming to get back on the winning side.
While Stall has trained Departing throughout the 5-year-old gelding's 16-race career, he only received Spendthrift Farm's Medal Count this season as the 4-year-old son of Dynaformer was previously trained by Dale Romans. The Louisiana native is hoping one of his charges gets over the yips Saturday as Departing is trying to halt a six-race skid while Medal Count is winless in seven starts since winning the Grade III Transylvania at Keeneland in April 2014.
"Departing was a very good second-tier 3-year-old and it was a little disappointing that he didn't step up, so to speak, and be a big boy as a 4-year-old," Stall said Thursday. "I can't find anything that is bugging him to make him a lesser horse. Maybe he was just in against the right horses as a 3-year-old and he's still doing what he can do as an older horse, it's just a little tougher on him.
"Medal Count. ... I've found over the years when you give those stud horses some time away from the track, it can be a little hard to get them back into form as older males. Things didn't work out in that race last weekend, he just went around there and didn't do a whole lot. But he showed us every indication he was fine, so we just wheeled him back and are really just looking for effort."
Owned and bred by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, Departing has been a particular source of frustration given what he has teased.
The War Front gelding won the Grade III Illinois Derby and Grade II Super and West Virginia derbies during his 3-year-old year in 2013 and opened 2014 with a confidence-inspiring 13/4-length win going a mile at Churchill Downs.
But beginning with his third-place effort in last year's Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap, Departing dropped his last five starts of 2014. In his first outing off a 183-day break, the gelding ran a solid third on the turf in the 11⁄16-mile Opening Verse at Churchill on May 30.
It was a good enough outing off the layoff to merit a crack in the Firecracker. Being good enough to win, however, is something Stall wants Departing to re-embrace.
"There is no way to sugarcoat his 4-year-old season except that it was a disappointment," Stall said. "He had dead aim on them in the Foster, he had dead aim on them in the Homecoming (Classic) ... and it was seconds and thirds. Hopefully he decides to go on with it one time."
Medal Count has run well on short rest before, finishing second in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes a week after his Transylvania victory. The bay colt was actually a buzz horse going into his eighth-place finish in the 2014 Kentucky Derby and rebounded to run third in the Belmont Stakes.
It hasn't been pretty since as he has run last in three of his last four starts, including last year's Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and Grade I Haskell Invitational. Before Stall plots out a further path, he wants the colt to prove he still wants to be on the racetrack.
"It's a distinct possibility that he could mark the rest of his career by (Saturday) night so I just hope he tries," said Stall, who is traveling this weekend to watch former trainer Frank Brothers get inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. "I figured why put him on a van to Saratoga or send him up to Arlington or go through all that and have him go 'Uh-uh, I enjoyed my vacation. I want to be like that the rest of my life.'"