02/26/2004 12:00AM

Much more than a top trainer

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ARCADIA, Calif. - For better or worse, a trainer is known by the horses he trains. By that standard, John Russell ranked with the very best, for a good long time, beginning in the mid-1960's until his retirement in 1995.

He was not particular, either. If a good horse arrived it stayed a good horse in Russell's solicitous care, whether its name was Cool Mood, Susan's Girl, Tri Jet, Intrepid Hero, Majestic Light, Effervescing, Stark South, or Cee's Tizzy.

Russell, though, liked to share his good fortune. He thrived on the thrill of the game. And while he made his share of history, he preferred to be the ultimate racing fan, ever amazed at the unpredictably entertaining nature of the Thoroughbred.

"No one works miracles with horses but Allen Jerkens," Russell once said in an interview with sportswriter Bill Nack. "The trick is to keep them sound and happy. You have to find their needs. A horse has to want to run. You can't chase him from behind."

Such a philosophy did not come to Russell overnight. Few horsemen have been so deeply schooled in their profession. Born in the north of England, his father was James Russell, who trained horses literally around the world, making his greatest mark as a 12-time champion in South Africa. His American mentors included B.A. "Ben" Jones and his son, Jimmy Jones, as well as Chuck Parke of the famous Idaho racing family.

"B.A. used to sit in the shed row and hold forth for hours," Russell would recall. "If you didn't learn something, then you just weren't paying attention."

The same can be said of time spent with John Russell. The snapshots alone were worth the investment.

* There was Russell, a 17-year-old English lad, supposedly off to California to attend Stanford University, but instead jumping the fence at old Tanforan and signing on as an exercise rider.

* There was Russell 10 years later, following his muse and paying his dues on the cold water New England circuit before catching a break training for the powerful Canadian owners Bud Willmot and Charles Baker.

* There was Russell again, a star of the 1970's, landing choice private jobs for Fred Hooper and then the Phipps family of New York, blessed with barns to die for.

* There was Russell once more, listed alongside 1982 champion mare Track Robbery, making sure everyone knew that the real credit belonged to Robert Wheeler, her trainer for all but one start. "After the job Bob had done with her, there was no way even I could mess her up," he insisted.

If nothing else, Russell was a romantic pessimist, perhaps the best possible combination for a trainer. When he took the Phipps position, the days of Bold Ruler and Buckpasser were ancient history, but expectations were rightfully high.

"This is perhaps the best bred barn of horses in the country, or the world, for that matter," he told Turf & Sport Digest upon taking the job. "But you'll find it very difficult to put a saddle on that piece of paper with their pedigree on it."

Russell's love of the game never waned, but the dreary details wore him down. When he retired, in 1995, he was a hale and hearty 59, ready to enjoy the years to come with his wife, Diane, and their two athletic sons.

A new home was being built. He would return to his beloved sailing, when he wasn't playing tennis. His literate brain - tethered so long by the demands of business propriety - teemed with ideas for essays, commentaries, even novels.

Instead, Russell spent the last eight years of his life battling one serious health issue, then another. He recovered from a stroke that tried to kill him, willing himself back into shape. Then came the diagnosis of an abdominal tumor, followed by the chemotherapy that was too awful to continue.

"I know I'm giving myself only a little longer to live," Russell said last year, when he decided against further treatment. "But I wanted to enjoy whatever time was left as much as possible."

And he did. He finished his novel, a racetrack mystery called "Dark Horses." He sang with his wife in a renowned local chorus. He reveled in the antics of his sons, Tristan and Jonathon. And he spoke out for causes dear to his heart, in particular the prickly subject of racehorse retirement.

In one of his last essays, appearing in the Feb. 4, 2003, issue of The Blood-Horse magazine, Russell laid down a stern challenge:

"To help dispel a public perception that Thoroughbred racing is cruel and the industry preoccupied with financial gain, the sport should be concerned about indigent horses," Russell wrote.

"Last year [in California], from a parimutuel pool of $4.03 billion, the tracks and horsemen earned $333.2 million. It is tragic if a small fraction could not be dedicated to relieve the plight of horses used to generate this enormous amount of money."

The voice is quiet, but the message lasts. John Russell's death, at home Wednesday night in Del Mar, marked the passing of a scholar, a gentleman, a loving husband and father, a racehorse advocate, and a friend. He was also one fine trainer, but in the end, that was beside the point.