Nicole Stall boarded the first plane to Maryland she could catch when she heard of Benjamin Boniface's death last June.
She was there to grieve the death of a boy she had known since his birth.
But also to work. In the days after the 20-year-old's death in an early-morning car accident on the farm, she went to the barns where she had fallen in love with horses as a teenager.
“I was completely out of it,” said William K. Boniface, known to most as Billy. “She just went out to the stallion barn, kept it running. Everything went as it should.”
Stall, a 1992 John Carroll graduate whose maiden name is Schab, will return to her home state next week, this time in hopes of celebrating. Her husband will enter Departing — the Illinois Derby winner and top challenger among the “new shooters” who did not run in the Kentucky Derby — in the Preakness.
“Being at the Preakness, with a live horse who could win, that's literally a dream come true,” she said this week.
Stall's involvement in horse racing began at Bonita Farm, the facility born of former Baltimore Sun racing editor William Boniface's dream to have a farm where horses could be bred, born, broken, trained and retired. She lived a half-mile away and was asked by Billy and Barbara Boniface to baby-sit their son Billy in the late 1980s. (She later baby-sat their son Benjamin, too.)
Two years later, she was cleaning stalls. Throughout college, she returned to work at the farm, and she could not break away after graduating from West Virginia Wesleyan.
“My parents looked at me and said, ‘Eighty thousand dollars later, and you're still over there cleaning up after horses,'” she said. “But it's all I wanted to do.”
Stall grew close to the Boniface family. She is godmother to Billy's youngest daughter, Bethany, and still spoils her with new Preakness outfits.
Supervising the stallion barn meant that Stall worked every day with the farm's most popular horse, 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testamony. She would groom the friendly stallion and walk him out to the paddock, where he would stand and enjoy his post-racing days.
Seeking to diversify her experience, she moved to Pennsylvania in 1998 and learned to prepare horses to be sold at auction. She returned to Maryland to interview for a job running a farm in Monkton. Upon arriving, she immediately recognized the man making the hire as Jerry Stautberg, known to most in the state simply as Jerry from his ubiquitous car dealership commercials.
The Stautbergs sent her to Saratoga Race Course in New York with two horses to sell. A trainer from Louisiana named Al Stall Jr. bought one during the auction, then the other through a private offer at the barn. That's when he met Nicole.
“We pretty much were together from then on,” she said. “Long-distance, because I was working in Maryland and he was racing all over. It wasn't long before I moved to be with him.”
Al Stall, whose father and grandfather bred and trained horses in Louisiana, began his training career with only a few horses in 1991 and built a strong enough stable to win racing titles at his home track, Fair Grounds, by the end of the decade. In 2007, he took over as primary trainer for Claiborne Farm, where Secretariat stood at stud. He raced Terrain in the 2009 Preakness, but his most notable horse to date is Blame, who beat then-undefeated Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders' Cup.
Al Stall races in Kentucky and Louisiana, and he takes his best horses to Saratoga each summer. That leaves Nicole to spend much of her time caring for their 7-year-old son, Albert, and 5-year-old daughter, Greta.
“I thought I'd miss the horses a bit more,” she said. “But I'm around it so much. It's our life.”
She does own one horse: a filly named Natty Boh. Her silks, black and gold, feature a checker pattern.
“My roots are so strong in Maryland racing,” she said. “The Bonifaces taught me everything.”
They know what it can be like to have a Preakness winner. Deputed Testamony's stud fees allowed them to move to their current location and expand their operation.
Visitors stopped by to see Deputed Testamony often. He was always jovial, Boniface said.
Nicole ended up caring for Deputed Testamony again late last June. Then the oldest living Triple Crown winner — and still the last horse with Maryland connections to win the Preakness — he had a similar routine. One day when Stall took him out of the paddock, he trudged slowly and seemed old.
“He just sort of stood there,” Stall said. “It was such a sad time for everyone.”
But on the way back to the stallion barn, Deputed Testamony came to. He reared up and pranced, wild one more time in front of his former caretaker.
He died in September.
Stall can't help but think of him now. And she remembers a replica of the Woodlawn Vase, given to the Preakness winner, on display at Bonita Farm.
When she lands in Baltimore next week, she'll reconnect with friends from high school and catch up with the Bonifaces. She'll think of Ben, whom she last saw last year when he and some friends were preparing for the Preakness.
“It will be emotional,” she said. “In so many ways. But we're lucky. Having a chance at that trophy, having a horse of that quality ... it's hard to believe it can happen.”
NOTES: Itsmyluckyday will have a new rider for the Preakness. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez will replace Elvis Trujillo aboard the Gulfstream Park Derby and Holy Bull winner, who finished 15th in the Kentucky Derby. ... Five-time Preakness-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas has firmed up the jockey assignments for his three Preakness candidates. He reported Wednesday morning that Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will replace Jon Court aboard Will Take Charge, while Julien Leparoux will have the mount aboard Titletown Five and Gary Stevens will retain the mount on Oxbow.
Confirmed starters for the May 18 Preakness:
Orb (1st at the Kentucky Derby)
Oxbow (6th in the Derby)
Will Take Charge (8th in the Derby)
Itsmyluckyday (15th in the Derby)
Goldencents (17th in the Derby)
Departing (1st in the Illinois Derby)
Titletown Five (4th in the Derby Trial)
Normandy Invasion (4th in the Derby)
Mylute (5th in the Derby)
Vyjack (18th in the Derby)
Govenor Charlie (1st in Sunland Derby)
Street Spice (5th in Illinois Derby)