Russell Road: A legendary racehorse and a country road
There is mystery along Russell Road, an unremarkable looking 2.8-mile stretch of plain macadam in Virginia’s rural Clarke County.
From beginning to end, the road built last century – five miles from Berryville and five miles from Winchester – is lined with modest homes and small farms for cattle, horses, goats, fruit and small businesses.
It is also the name of a horse named Russell Road, who ranks as one of the winnings-most horses in West Virginia racing history.
Today Russell Road is the Berryville postal address for four farms that have successfully competed in horse racing for a decade, amassing more than $7 million in winnings.
It all began in 2006 with a broodmare named Roberta Grump, owned by Bobby Lloyd, a breeder who moved to his 11.5 acre Russell Road farm from the town of Berryville in 1992 because “my wife and I always wanted a place of our own,” said Lloyd.
At the age of 15, Roberta foaled a horse in West Virginia that Lloyd name registered as “Itsaboygrump.”
Shortly thereafter Mark Russell, an owner/trainer of racehorses, bought the Grump-named horse and asked Lloyd if he could rename him Russell Road since that was Lloyd’s street and Mark’s last name.
“Since it turned out to be such a good horse, it was a much better fit,” said Lloyd, with Russell Road racing for 10 years, earning $2 million in 62 West Virginia races before retiring last October as the state’s second highest earning horse of all time.
During Russell Road’s stellar career, Lloyd’s neighbors also enjoyed success.
Naomi Long, who grew up on Berryville Pike with a portion of her father’s farm running along Russell Road, was lured into horse racing when her dad took her to races as a little girl at the now defunct Shenandoah Downs Track in Charles Town, West Virginia.
“We would sit under a willow tree and watch,” remembered Long, who relocated at age 29 to her current 8-acre Russell Road farm in 1976. “I was in awe (of the excitement). My dream was to part of it,” she remembered.
She bought her first horse, Susies Spyder, a broodmare, in the mid-1990s. Susies eventually produced Sweet Music, the first horse Long raised on her own and who earned roughly $250,000 before retiring.
“I was hooked,” said Long, who now owns 17 horses with four in training at Charles Town Races in Charles Town, West Virginia. “I thought it couldn’t get any better than this. I was in love with the life and charm of it.”
In 2010 Red Hot Diva came along out of Sweet Music, winning $410,000 before retiring as a 7-year-old this past winter after winning her final race.
Patricia “Tish” Harper also grew up on Russell Road after her family moved there in 1974 when she was in the sixth grade. She was already in love with horses, boarding her pony at a horse farm across the street.
After earning a degree in dental hygiene in 1989 from Virginia Commonwealth, Harper lived in Winchester while working as a dental hygienist in Leesburg.
Lloyd was her Winchester mailman and became a neighbor when she bought her father’s 14-acre farm in 2000.
Two years later a man stopped by and asked if she would consider boarding horses, she agreed and in 2004 bought her first racehorse, a 3-month-old filly named Kicking Timber.
One day when a broodmare was being trailered away to foal in West Virginia, Kicking Timber, who had become attached to the broodmare, tried to follow, trying to jump over the pasture fence.
She didn’t make it, ending up with her front hoofs on one side, rear hoofs on the other.
“Bobby Lloyd was driving by when he saw us trying to help the horse off the fence and he stopped and helped,” Harper said, and the horse was successfully freed uninjured.
As fate would have it, in Kicking Timber’s first race in 2008, she beat Lloyd’s horse, Nature’s Annuity.
Harper remembers Lloyd good-naturedly saying, “That’s what happens when you do a good thing, help push that horse off the fence and then you go and beat me.”
“We have friendly competition; we are neighbors and friends,” said Lloyd. “But when we have horses in the same race I want to kick their butt and I am sure it is the same with them. Whoever wins, when it is over, we shake hands.”
Kicking Timber also won her only other race before an injury sent her to pasture as a pleasure horse.
Meanwhile, Harper was struggling with the challenges of the racing industry.
“I didn’t know the business,” she said.
Rescue came in the person of Ray Pennington, a Warren County native who had made his fortune in timber, entering the racing business in 2006.
He first met Harper in 2008, asking to buy Kicking Timber because of his timber business but she wouldn’t sell. She did start boarding his horses the following year and Pennington has since amassed more than $3 million in winnings.
“My success began when I met Tish,” said Pennington, noting her hands-on approach to building trust with the horses and her daily devotion to the physical work required in boarding them.
“The horse has to trust you to work for them and know you will do anything to make them happy,” said Harper. “Happy horses are winners. It’s a passion.”
“You live vicariously through the animal,” added Pennington, who became engaged to Harper 18 months ago and has earned money in more than half the 947 races his horses have entered, including 214 wins.
“The money is great but it is not the only reason to get into it,” he said.
Harper has had nine different race winners, with some names easily recognizable relating to the dental profession: Toothache, Holey Molar, Sweet Tooth and Crowned with Gold.
Rounding out the successful quartet is Donnie Duval, who worked at the post office at the same time as Lloyd. They have been friends for more than 60 years and neighbors for more than 25 years.
Seeing his friend’s success, Duval eventually wanted to try his hand.
In 2011 Mark Russell gave Duval Early Annunity, a broodmare who foaled Charitable Annuity, named 2015 West Virginia Horse of the Year as a 3 year old.
The gelding traces his lineage back through Roberta Grump and has won $676,290 so far.
“He’s still in the game,” said Duval, who collects breeder royalties from the horse, owned by Russell.
All Russell Road residents cite limestone in the pastures, along with excellent trainers at Charles Town Races and Maryland tracks, as two of ingredients to success.
“The limestone contributes to a more sound racehorse but it doesn’t make them run any faster,” said Lloyd.
Harper said when the neighbors have a horse in the same race, they tell each other, “If we don’t get there first, I hope you do.”
“We get along well,” said Long. “We help each other and you would be hard pressed to go somewhere and find something this small that has this much prosperity with horses that have accomplished so much.”
Contact Tom Crosby at email@example.com