01/21/2015 3:19PM

Comeflywithanangel, passed over at auction, becomes Michigan’s top runner

Joe Nevills
Comeflywithanangel earned honors as MTOBA's Horse of the Year for 2014.

Guy and Deb Russell stood outside their filly’s stall, bewildered by what had just happened.

The filly, a gray named Comeflywithanangel, had gone through the ring at the 2009 Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association yearling sale without drawing a single bid. At the time, it was a significant blow to the Russells’ fledgling breeding program, and one they didn’t see coming.

“They just weren’t interested,” Guy said. “People just weren’t looking, or looking other ways.”

Many of the horsemen that sat on their hands as Comeflywithanangel was led out of the ring that day were at Hazel Park Raceway five years later when the mare won the older female division of the $50,000 Michigan Sire Stakes. That effort helped earn her MTOBA's Horse of the Year title for 2014.

Comeflywithanangel had the best campaign of her life at age 6, winning five of eight races at Hazel Park and Thistledown and earning $67,120 under trainer Bob Gorham, who purchased the horse privately three months after the yearling sale. The Sire Stakes last September brought the mare’s record to 12 wins in 31 career starts over five seasons of racing for $139,385.

“She’s a really nice mare,” Gorham said. “We’ll run her again [in 2015]. Eventually, we’d like to breed her, for sure.”

The auction process is familiar territory for the Russells, who manage an auction house in Hillsdale, Mich., and live on a farm in the same town near the Ohio border.  Formerly involved in the Quarter Horse realm, the Russells began to venture into Thoroughbred breeding in the mid-2000s. Their first foal, a colt named My First Buck, was born in 2004 and went on to become a multiple stakes-placed runner in Michigan.

Around that time, Guy Russell visited the low-rent Shipshewana horse auction in northeast Indiana to add to his broodmare band and took a flyer on an empty Rehaan mare named C R Emmaus Road for $280.

“She was a blessing,” Deb Russell said. “Guy brought her home and showed me her papers, and I said ‘Guy, God meant for us to have her.’ He looked at me funny, and I said, ‘She’s supposed to be here. I’m telling you, she’s a gift from God.’”

Deb Russell held on to that feeling, along with the religious overtones of the mare’s own name – in the Bible, Jesus appeared before his disciples on the road to Emmaus – and gave the ensuing foals biblical-themed names. The first was Power of Titus, who became a three-time stakes-winner in Michigan and earned $274,050. The second was Comeflywithanangel, by Michigan sire Equality. She grew up at the Russells’ farm with three other foals.

“One morning I looked out across the field and the two boys and girl took off and ran up the hill back behind the barn,” Deb Russell said. “’Angel’ just kind of stood there and looked at them like, ‘Yeah, go for it. I’ll give you a head start.’ Then all of a sudden, they got halfway across the field, she picked up her head and said, ‘Okay boys, let’s do it.’ She flat flew past them. I told Guy I knew what I was going to name her – Comeflywithanangel, because that’s exactly what she looked like. She just picked up her wings and she was gone.”

As Comeflywithanangel raced with her pasturemates, Power of Titus went through the 2008 MTOBA yearling sale on the campus of Michigan State University, going to trainer Del Waite for $1,200. The following September, he finished second in the Patrick Wood Stakes at Pinnacle Race Course. Comeflywithanangel stepped off the trailer for the 2009 MTOBA sale with a page that was suddenly active.

Not content to rest on the recent catalog update, the Russells took further steps to show off their horse.

The MTOBA yearling sale, now held exclusively online, was a unique event compared to the better-known Thoroughbred auctions. The day featured a halter-class show for auction entries in the hours before the sale, and the informal setting allowed for unorthodox marketing tactics to show off a horse beyond the usual “down-and-back.”

“When I took her to the yearling sale, I put her on a longe line and showed the boys, ‘Here’s how she travels. She’s smooth. She’s gonna make a racehorse,’” Guy Russell said. “I think everybody thought I was nuts. I used to train Quarter Horses and I learned if they move smooth, if they can travel smooth, they can get up and run. If they’re rough, they won’t be a good runner. Smooth horses make good runners.”

None of it helped. Deb Russell led Comeflywithanangel through the ring, standing her up in front each group of bidders bunched in the rented bleacher seats, until they were excused by the auctioneer. After the sale, Guy said he was offered $500 for the filly, but he declined.

“It was shock,” she said. “My husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve given more for Quarter Horses as show horses than what these people are looking to give for a Thoroughbred that could give them some money back.’ But we thought, we’ll take her home, and if it comes down to it, we can raise the money and run her ourselves.”

What kept buyers away? Part of it was the economy. Michigan was ground zero for the national recession that struck the late 2000s, and the state’s Thoroughbred industry was just as dire. Of the 35 horses offered at the 2009 sale, 20 finished under their reserves and 15 of those did not garner a bid.

Of course, a horse has to fit the buyers’ criteria as well. Gorham leaned on a rail with his son Garrett and watched Comeflywithanangel make her paces through the ring and exit to silence. At the time, Gorham said the April foal still had some growing to do.

“It wasn’t really anything conformational,” he said. “She was just small and very immature-looking.”

Over the years, Gorham has had an eye for spotting talent among Michigan-breds. The Kalamazoo-based trainer signed the tickets on Michigan Horses of the Year Rockem Sockem and Weatherstorm at previous MTOBA yearling sales. Neither horse boasted a standout pedigree, even by regional standards.

In December, Gorham visited the Russells’ farm to inspect yearlings for his clients. Comeflywithanangel had done enough growing in three months for the trainer to come back with his trailer.

“I had known the mare and had followed her, and had a horse named Pauliano Pkwy out of that mare that we raced for years,” Gorham said. “What I didn’t realize, I guess, is that that mare’s foals tend to mature later. They really don’t hit their stride until they’re older, even beyond the 2-year-old year. We went back and looked at that filly in December, and she had grown and changed, and we decided we liked her better than we did at the auction in September.”

Gorham was right about C R Emmaus Road’s foals getting better with age. Pauliano Pkwy retired last year at age 11 after a campaign in which he finished on the board more often than he didn’t. Power of Titus was stakes-placed as a juvenile, but he earned 10 of his 13 career wins at ages 5 and 6.

Like Power of Titus though, Comeflywithanangel was no slouch as a youngster. She broke her maiden at Pinnacle at the end of her juvenile campaign, and won her 3-year-old bow at Thistledown the following year. As racetracks in Michigan closed, she followed the circuit to the next one.

At age 4, Comeflywithanangel finished second in the older female division of the Michigan Sire Stakes at Mount Pleasant Meadows, though 11 ¾ lengths behind winner Evil Secret. The following year, she finished fifth in the same race. She was a useful horse, but that was about as far as it went.

The dam’s trademark late bloom finally hit Comeflywithanangel in 2014, timed with the opening of Hazel Park that summer, which stretched the state’s Thoroughbreds out from a half-mile oval at Mount Pleasant to five furlongs.

Comeflywithanangel began her 2014 campaign at Thistledown, finishing fifth in her return from an eight-month layoff. She then reeled off three straight wins at the Cleveland-area track, even rising in the claiming ranks in the midst of the run. The mare then made her first start at Hazel Park, finishing third in the Larkspur Handicap.

She returned to Hazel Park two starts later to win a $20,000 allowance race that served as the prep for her division of the six-race Sire Stakes program, trumping old foe Evil Secret by 5 ¼ lengths in the process. Three weeks later, Comeflywithanangel finished the job in the Sire Stakes.

“Michigan has had a lot of different racetracks, and frankly, I think that the main reason that she came around is the fact that she had the opportunity to run in Cleveland and at Hazel Park, and it’s so much different from Mount Pleasant,” Gorham said. “She always was an adequate horse at Cleveland, but when we brought up for the stakes races at Mount Pleasant, they just didn’t work out. A lot of it has to do with the change of where we’re running.”

Back in Hillsdale, C R Emmaus Road remains the Russells’ lone broodmare, though they plan to start adding to his ranks again in the near future. The $280 mare was named Michigan’s Broodmare of the Year in 2013, and is carrying a full sibling to Comeflywithanangel for the 2015 foaling season.

Guy Russell said that he and Gorham keep in touch about the mare’s runners, including annual visits to inspect her latest offspring. Gorham went back to the well for a client to purchase Trinity Revealed, a now-3-year-old full sister to Comeflywithanangel, who finished fourth in her division of the 2014 Sire Stakes. If history is any indicator, everyone involved expected the filly’s best years are ahead of her.

“Bob came to the farm and gave me $5,000 for that filly,” Guy Russell said. “That’s how impressed he was with Comeflywithanangel.”

It took longer than expected, but the gray filly had paid her way for the Russells after all.