Nations: Rooting for Russell Road

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — I’m not in the habit of rooting when I’m out covering an event.

There’s really no such thing as absolute impartiality, of course — all of us in this business have our own personal backgrounds which inevitably serve as a sort of filter for the events and people we cover. The idea is to minimize that built-in bias by consciously taking a step back from the people we cover on a day-to-day basis. That’s not to say you can’t be courteous and even friendly with folks you interview — that’s a natural and hopefully standard attitude in any professional relationship.

Some folks I deal with I like more than others, and I suppose that works both ways as well. The goal is to not let those preferences filter into the writing that any journalist undertakes each day. I’m about to fail at that goal, big time, but I imagine the subjects in question — thoroughbred horses — won’t ever know the difference.

On Saturday night, I was pulling for Russell Road to win the $500,000 West Virginia Breeders Classic at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. No, I didn’t have any money on him in case you were wondering, but I do have a long personal investment in that decorated horse’s career. Now a seasoned 7-year-old with 46 lifetime starts under his belt, Russell Road’s career as a first-rate race horse began not long after I started regularly writing about the sport first at The Journal in Martinsburg, W.Va., and now here at The Northern Virginia Daily.

Russell Road, although West Virginia-bred, has deep connections to the Shenandoah Valley. Owned by Winchester’s Mark Russell, bred by Clarke County’s Robert Lloyd and trained by legendary former James Wood High School coach and athletic director James W. Casey — now the proprietor of Taylor Mountain Farm in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle — Russell Road had a long run as Charles Town’s undisputed champion, the top horse based at the track.

Nothing lasts forever, and Russell Road’s impressive streak of dominance at Charles Town seemed to end at last year’s running of the West Virginia Breeders’ Classic. That’s when a talented 3-year-old colt named Lucy’s Bob Boy took on his elders for the big money and dusted the field, including favored Russell Road, for an impressive win. Since that race, Lucy’s Bob Boy has been practically unstoppable at Charles Town. Heading into Saturday’s race, the Sondra Dono-trained Lucy’s Bob Boy had won an astounding 15 of 18 lifetime starts at Charles Town, and posted runner-up efforts in each of those he didn’t win. Owned by Michael Furr, Lucy’s Bob Boy was 6-for-6 at Charles Town before Saturday night.

No surprise then that Lucy’s Bob Boy entered as the odds-on favorite (0.60-1) to prevail in the 10-horse field, while Russell Road was relegated to second choice (2.80-1). Third choice Fred High (5-0) seemed an afterthought, despite having beaten Russell Road the last time out in a September stakes race at Charles Town.

From the break, Lucy’s Bob Boy rocketed to the front under jockey Gustavo Larrosa in a determined effort to put away the field with a wire-to-wire effort. Russell Road, with jockey Mathew McGowan aboard, just wasn’t having it. Through the first quarter-mile, Russell Road tailed his rival by 1 1/2 lengths, and then started moving up. Past the half-mile mark, the two horses were nearly even as they battled down the backstretch. Then near the quarter pole, the unthinkable — Lucy’s Bob Boy gave way.

Russell Road, pressuring throughout, surged to the front heading through the final turn with the prospect of winning his third West Virginia Breeders’ Classic, adding the title to his wins in 2011 and 2009, a feat accomplished by just one other horse — the ageless Confucius Say, who won the race in 2001 and 2002 before coming back with one last burst of glory by winning it again in 2007.

Whether or not this Classic will similarly be Russell Road’s last hurrah remains to be seen; the 7-year-old runs a light schedule these days, his slate designed every year for peak form heading into this very race. He may well be back next season for another run at it; I expect that he will.

On Saturday, it wasn’t to be. Despite Russell Road’s gallant effort — maybe because of it — he simply didn’t have enough left in the tank to fend off hard-charging Fred High. While Russell Road and Lucy’s Bob Boy duked it out up front, jockey Wesley Ho was content to wait with Fred High off the pace. When Lucy’s Bob Boy faltered — he finished ninth — Fred High made his move. McGowan asked for everything Russell Road could give, and got it. It just wasn’t quite enough on Saturday, as Fred High slipped by deep down the stretch to win by ¾ of a length.

As I leaned on the rail along the front stretch to watch Russell Road and Lucy’s Bob Boy head for home, I caught myself bouncing on my feet. I think I even heard myself mumble something along the lines of, ‘C’mon, Russell.’ If so, I wasn’t the only one. It’s not that I was against Lucy’s Bob Boy, a great horse in his own right, or Dono — a genial, open and honest trainer. I didn’t know Fred High’s connections so well, but afterward found trainer John Robb to be another forthright and frank conditioner, and owner Edward Krishack a refreshingly colorful and candid owner was absolutely ecstatic to win the night’s signature race.

I wasn’t rooting against — I was rooting for on Saturday night. I was rooting for Russell Road, the horse I’ve written about more than any other. I was rooting for Mark Russell and Bobby Lloyd, blue-collar horsemen who’ve enjoyed a dazzling ride with the striking chestnut gelding. Most of all, I was rooting for James W. Casey, back at the track for the first night since being released just two days before from the hospital after a lengthy stay battling an illness.

It was still a great night for one of Charles Town’s foremost trainers — Casey’s 4-year-old gelding Greenway Court made him a winner in the very first race, the $65,000 West Virginia “Dash for Cash” Breeders Classic. He got another winner in the fourth race, the $65,000 West Virginia of Tourism Breeders Classic, with 3-year-old filly Blisstikus. Casey even had a horse he bred but doesn’t own or train — Amherst Street — come through with a win in the $65,000 Vincent Moscarelli Memorial Breeders Classic.

Russell Road nearly joined them with his heroic effort. Hopefully, he’ll make another run at it next year. If not, his performance at Charles Town on Saturday will be a warm memory for all his many fans. Count me among them.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>