Rachel Russell

In its marketing for Rachel Alexandra’s appearance at Belmont Park later today, NYRA has made explicit use of the horse crush with its “Is She The One?” campaign. In my observations, the horse crush is largely a female phenomenon, but I do know a handful of people—men and women—who are travelling from out of town this weekend to come see the Medaglia D’Oro filly. For them, she is indeed The One.

While I’ll be joining those out at Belmont today, I’ll do my own travelling for a horse crush tomorrow, to Monmouth Park, where well known Backstretch horse crush Saratoga Russell will make his 2009 début after fifteen months away from the track.

About a month ago, following a workout notification for Saratoga Russell, I headed south to Monmouth Park to see the four-year-old colt for whom, a year and a half ago, so many had high hopes. I’d watched him make his first start in November of 2007; he set sizzling fractions and held on for second, beaten nearly two lengths by National Pride.

He won his next start, a month later, by seven and a half lengths, and headed south to prepare for an ambitious three-year-old campaign—Derby dreams. In February, he romped in the Gulfstream slop; the winning margin this time was ten lengths. Rick Violette, training the colt for West Point Thoroughbreds, shipped him home for the Gotham, where classic hopes died an ugly death in the Aqueduct muck and fog. Reportedly displacing a palate, he finished eighth, by 38 lengths.

He had surgery; he went to Kentucky. Training regimens have stopped and started, in late March of 2008 and in December of 2008. No activity this year; he must, not unexpectedly, be retired. And then in May, steady workout notifications, from Monmouth Park.

Saratoga Russell is now in the barn of Kiaran McLaughlin, and according to assistant trainer Andrew St. Lawrence, the colt has had no physical problems other than his breathing issues. He’s sound, and as of a month ago, “training great. He’s really strong.” Near his stall, I’m told that this still intact colt is “studdish,” and warned to keep alert around him.

He is big, impressive, energetic, and utterly untrustworthy. As St. Lawrence stands in the stall with him, Saratoga Russell bends his head and takes his trainer’s boot in his mouth. He’s not biting very hard, but he could, and he’s letting us know who’s in charge. He holds on to the boot throughout the conversation, and only lets go when St. Lawrence tries to exit the stall.

I’m standing in the shedrow, and as a horse and groom walk by, I turn my body to get out of the way—wrong direction. My back is to the colt, and within seconds, he’s got my bag in his teeth, and he’s not letting go. Again, it’s insistence, not aggression; I’m getting pulled back towards to the stall, and I can’t reclaim my bag, but he’s clearly not trying to do any damage.

We are told that he loves to run. When he heads to the track in the morning, he wants to go; he doesn’t want to get out there and fool around. “He’s hard on the exercise rider,” St. Lawrence says.

A variety of video of Saratoga Russell is available on Youtube; they are promotional spots produced by West Point Thoroughbreds, but you can see how he looks, and I learned a lot from the clip in which his vet talks about his ailments and how they were treated. One might wonder why so much time and effort have been invested in a fragile four year old with only four lifetime starts, but I’ll leave that to other people.

Full disclosure comment: West Point Thoroughbreds is a Brooklyn Backstretch advertiser through the Hello Race Fans ad network; anyone who reads this site, though, knows that my interest in this colt far precedes any potential revenue from his owner. I’ve watched every move he’s made, and while the highlight of most people’s racing weekend in the greater New York area will be Rachel Alexandra’s appearance at Belmont later today, I’ll be awaiting with anticipation the return, finally, of Saratoga Russell, an hour or so to the south.

On the farm in Kentucky, September 2008

Veterinarian Dr. Baker talking about Saratoga Russell’s ailments and treatments

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