SARATOGA SPRINGS — Trainer Al Stall Jr. has eight fingers and two thumbs, and is in favor of keeping all of them.
So he repeatedly pulled his hands out of range as Tom’s d’Etat lunged at him from the front of his stall on the Saratoga Race Course backstretch Friday morning.
“He’s just territorial,” Stall said with a laugh.
That’s the feisty 7-year-old’s nature, anyway, but he’s particularly territorial at Saratoga, where he earned his first career victory way back in the summer of 2016 and is 3-for-4 at the Spa, with a stakes win in the Alydar last year.
He has also become a Grade I winner since the last time he visited Saratoga, last summer, as Tom’s d’Etat has built a formidable resume at the back end of his lengthy career and will bring a four-race winning streak into the Grade I Whitney on Aug. 1.
In his first 14 career starts,Tom’s d’Etat did not win a single graded stakes, but since Oct. 26, 2019, he has won the Grade II Fayette at Keeneland, the Grade I Clark at Churchill Downs, the Oaklawn Mile and the Grade II Stephen Foster at Churchill, nearly breaking a track record.
Racing likes to celebrate the old-timers who are still battling at an advanced age, but Tom’s d’Etat has kicked that to an even higher degree, becoming perhaps the best older dirt horse in North America right now, while doing by far the best work of his career in the last nine months.
“It’s new to me,” Stall said, of having a horse this old get good this late. “You might see maybe a claiming horse get kind of in form and notch his way up the ladder. But at this level, with what he’s been through, I’d say he’s got some degree of arthritis, but other than that, he’s basically … don’t we all?
“It’s unbelievable. It makes you feel good that, every once in awhile, you try to do the right thing and most of the time in this business it doesn’t work out. But it certainly worked out for us so far.”
If Tom’s d’Etat is in the get-off-my-lawn set of racehorses now, his attitude was get-me-off-the-lawn in his first career start, on Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill Downs in May of 2016.
Stall tried him on the grass, and Tom’s d’Etat beat one horse in a 12-horse field.
“I ran him on grass the first time, which was no good; he did everything but stop and graze,” Stall said.
At the time, Churchill Downs was writing unusual mile-and-a-quarter races for maidens, and Stall threw Tom’s d’Etat in one, where he was second to a highly regarded colt from Mike Maker’s barn.
Next up, Saratoga, and Tom’s d’Etat won by four lengths.
He was back at Saratoga the following year as he gradually worked his way up through the allowance ranks, winning by nine lengths at the Spa.
The process was slowed by some physical issues that forced long layoffs.
“Once he got over all that, he’s been fun, he’s been solid as a rock,” Stall said.
In the Stephen Foster three weeks ago, Tom’s d’Etat stalked the front-runner and took over at the three-eighths pole and was 4 1/4 lengths clear of the red-hot By My Standards at the wire to stop his three-race winning streak.
“It was his second race in 213 days, and to run, eased up, and be .02 off Victory Gallop’s track record, that blew everybody away,” Stall said. “We were thinking he might, quote-unquote, need a race. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. That tells me that he’s ready to roll and kind of maintain from here to the end of the year.”
Better late than never, but Tom’s d’Etat has developed into one of the best horses Stall has trained.
“Well, he’s No. 2 right now. You know? But, yeah, he’s one of my all-time favorites, after Blame,” Stall said, referring to the only horse ever to have beaten Zenyatta, in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. “That’s fine. That’s not bad.”
Tom’s d’Etat is named for his late owner, Tom Benson of New Orleans Saints fame, who died in 2018.
His wife Gayle, under the stable name G M B Racing, continues to campaign the horse.
Tom’s d’Etat’s late run to fame and glory also has outlasted his sire, Smart Strike, who died in 2015 after having produced the likes of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, English Channel, Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Battle of Midway.
Besides the Clark and Fayette, Tom’s d’Etat’s busy and ambitious 2019 season included a shot at the Pegasus World Cup, the Stephen Foster (he was third) and the Grade I Woodward, with a victory in the ungraded Alydar.
“What’s not to love [about Saratoga]. When a horse likes Saratoga, a horse likes Saratoga,” Stall said. “We’ve seen that over the years. You see some that don’t for some reason, but it seems like the classy horses like Saratoga. I don’t know why, but there’s not too many who come to Saratoga and, ‘Oh, he hated Saratoga,’ and goes somewhere else and wins, like, the Breeders’ Cup. You don’t see that often.”
Stall was able to sneak in an easy comeback breeze for Tom’s d’Etat at Churchill before shipping to Saratoga, and he’ll get him on the track for something more serious next week.
He’ll be the one to beat in the Whitney, with 2019 Travers winner Code of Honor also pointing toward that race.
“That [rankings] doesn’t mean anything to me,” Stall said. “Just train the horses, and whatever people want to say is fine. I don’t even look at stuff like that. We just focus in on Tom and point forward for the races we’re going to point for.
“As far as me being worried, we haven’t seen anything we don’t like.”