Posted April 16, 2012 | comments Leave a comment

Nations: Russell Road still fan favorite

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Surprise winner Caixa Eletronica may well have gone home with the big money after besting a strong field in Saturday night's $1 million Charles Town Classic (Grade 2), but the Kentucky-bred chestnut horse had to settle for second fiddle among crowd favorites.

That honor Saturday night, and most every time he runs these days, firmly belongs to six-year-old gelding Russell Road. Among Charles Town-based horses, Russell Road is a rock star, a guaranteed lock as the race favorite no matter how his previous effort had played out, no matter how long he'd laid off racing, no matter the distance, no matter what.

In Saturday's $50,000 Confucius Say Stakes, Russell Road -- running at nearly even odds to win -- delivered once more for his enthusiastic fan base with perhaps the most impressive yet of his 20 career victories. Running an uninspired sixth at the quarter-mile mark under jockey Luis Perez, it appeared that the Mark Russell-owned gelding was on the way to repeating his last effort, a lackluster showing in last November's A Huevo Stakes in which he finished out of the money.

A quarter-mile is not seven furlongs, though, and that's the distance the field had to cover Saturday night to beat Russell Road. Perez, who'd been aboard Russell Road his previous three outings stretching back to last year, sensed he had "plenty of horse" for the asking. Sure enough, when Perez eased Russell Road to the outside just a bit more, the James W. Casey-trained runner rocketed forward just past the five-sixteenths pole and shot past four rivals running abreast heading into the stretch to grab the lead. From there, Russell Road simply torched the competition has he won going away by 4 1/2-lengths in 1:25.31.

Simply put, you don't become a $1 million career winner for nothing. That's what Russell Road did last year by winning the $500,000 West Virginia Breeders' Classic for the second time, boosting his career earnings past the $1 million mark and cementing his status as the best West Virginia-bred horse currently in training.

Although Russell Road is the ultimate "home-bred" runner for Charles Town, his connections stretch across state lines into Virginia. Breeder Robert "Bobby" Lloyd can rightfully be proud of the son of his recently deceased broodmare, Roberta Grump. Lloyd's small horse farm in Berryville has helped produce a number of strong runners at Charles Town, mostly for Winchester's Mark Russell. To take advantage of West Virginia's lucrative stakes program for state-breds, Lloyd's broodmares invariably give birth at James W. Casey's Taylor Mountain Farm in Jefferson County, W.Va.

Casey has his own ties to Virginia, the Clarke County native having served for years as a coach and athletic director at James Wood High School before moving into his second career as a successful trainer.

Ask any of them -- Lloyd, Russell, even Casey -- and they'll tell you the same thing. They've had good horses before, but none to compare with Russell Road.

"People like him," Casey said simply. "He's the best horse I've ever had."

During his three-year-old campaign, Russell Road was even briefly on the Triple Crown trail. It turned out he didn't quite have the distance to challenge for those races, settling into a lucrative career as a sprinter instead.

Even though he was chosen as the 2011 West Virginia Horse of the Year by the state breeders' association last month, that sluggish finish last November inevitably led some to the question -- had Russell Road finally lost a step?

Mark Russell didn't think so, and seeing his accomplished runner dive right back into training after a nice layoff only reinforced Russell's confidence.

"I believe he got a little bit bigger, a little bit bigger than he was last year," Russell said. "We were ecstatic with the way he was training, and tonight was great to see."

Leading into the Confucius Say Stakes, Russell Road was posting fantastic workout times. Still, a pedestrian start against a solid field of state breds looked costly -- at least, until Russell Road decided to blow away the competition.

"He runs pretty good fresh, you know," Casey said.

That he does, and as Casey admits the seven-furlong distance is probably Russell Road's best.

Speaking of best, Russell Road's status as living legend at Charles Town just keeps growing. Even Casey will admit that the chestnut gelding has to rank among the best -- ever -- to run primarily at Charles Town.

"Of the horses that were bought and raised here, he's as good as any of them," Casey said. "You've got Confucius Say, and you've got Coin Collector and him -- those are the last three, but there might be some others I'm forgetting.

"Those three are about as good as any. He's still going, so he's won more money than them."

Mark Russell, who first got into Thoroughbred racing as an owner in 1985, continues to marvel at the incredible ride he's had with Russell Road. And if Saturday night's race was any indication, that ride is far from over.

"Russell's just been so special to me, and I think it's the greatest game played outdoors," Russell said. "In my heart, I just love it that much. To have Russell be a part of that, in something you love like this, I couldn't think of a better way to spend the latter half of my life than what I'm doing right now. It's incredible."

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