by Jeff Brammer
Russell Road has won more than two dozen races in his career, but never has he left his owner Mark Russell virtually speechless.
Never until now, that is.
After trading blows with odds-on favorite Lucy’s Bob Boy for much of the early going Saturday night, Russell Road appeared beaten rounding the final turn in the $500,000 West Virginia Breeders Classic.
The eight-year-old chestnut gelding had run in five previous editions of the richest state-bred race in the country, winning twice – including first as a three-year-old in 2009 and then again two years later in 2011.
But he had finished second in each of the most recent renditions, including a well-beaten eight lengths in 2012 to the horse he now trailed entering the stretch run Saturday night at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
Toiling under a prompt early pace, an aged Russell Road looked to have been given the slip by the track’s next generation superstar – a stylish gelding himself three years his junior – as they hit the top of the stretch.
Yet with a few cracks of the whip by jockey Jose Montano, Russell Road dug in as he has so often during his seven racing seasons to nip the competition at the wire, this time topping Lucy’s Bob Boy and jockey Arnaldo Bocachica by a half-length.
“When you’re eight years old and you jump up and run the race that he just ran and knocked off Lucy, who is in a zone right now, I’m speechless,” Russell said. “Just watching this horse do what he did tonight was just truly inspirational to me.
“He’s just been so special to us. It’s really kind of hard to talk about.”
The 1-2 post time favorite, Lucy’s Bob Boy – the winner of his three previous races, each by sizeable margins over fields that included Russell Road – took the initiative early with Russell Road, engaging him immediately from the outside. As they had done a year ago, when their speed duel set up the race for late-running Fred High to get the money, the two ran largely in tandem through the stretch the first time and remained that way, well ahead of the rest of the field, through the length of the backstretch.
But Lucy’s Bob Boy and Bocachica appeared to gain a bit of separation going around the final turn and maintained the lead until losing momentum in the final strides as they were ultimately overtaken. Fred High rallied to be third.
Russell Road stopped the clock in 1 minute, 53.85 seconds for the 1 1/8 miles distance.
“He has a big, big heart,” Montano said. “The last couple of races all the time it was Lucy’s Bob Boy in front and then Russell Road. This time I wanted to put more pressure to Lucy. My horse was strong and I felt comfortable.”
Though Russell the owner undoubtedly had more on the line than most, a similar feeling of good will and accomplishment reverberated throughout a crowd that has grown accustomed to witnessing special efforts on the local track by this seemingly tireless West Virginia-bred gelding.
In 2008, Russell Road jumped onto the racing scene a stakes winner at 2 with victories in the Tri-State and West Virginia futurities, and hasn’t been out of the minds of local fans since.
He flirted with the Triple Crown trail the following year at three before launching into a career that has amassed 20 stakes victories and more than $1.9 million in earnings, including his most recent score as the second betting choice in a full field of 10 on Saturday.
“When we started working him as a young horse as a 2-year-old, we could see he was pretty special,” Russell said. “We were hoping and thinking that big things were to come and he didn’t disappoint. But as he’s gotten older, you just never know how they’re going to stay in the competitive level. Every year this guy comes back again.”
Though a gelding and lacking any potential residual value in the breeding shed as a stallion, it has been that same shortcoming that has allowed Russell Road an opportunity to develop a rabid fan base that has been rewarded once again.
Following his victory Saturday, Russell Road joins Confucius Say (2001-2002-2007) as the only three-time West Virginia Breeders Classic winners, snapping a four-race losing streak that began after his seasonal debut victory in May in a six-furlong allowance race at Mountaineer Park.
“The ($50,000) A Huevo (for state-bred three-year-olds and older) is next month,” Russell said. “I’m not sure if we’ll be there. We’ll see how he is coming up in the next week or two and make that choice. But we can call it a year and hopefully, possibly look forward to next year.
“If he’s of the mindset that he can do it and he’s at the competitive level … I’d like to try it again as a nine-year-old.”
Jeff Brammer is sports editor of the Spirit of Jefferson.