10/14/2010 1:48PM

Russell Road seeks repeat in West Virginia Breeders' Classic

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Can Russell Road become the third horse to win back-to-back runnings of the West Virginia Breeders’ Classic, joining Confucius Say and Speed Whiz? Or can Black Belt continue a trend in which 3-year-olds have won the last two runnings of the race?

Those are two of the compelling storylines to follow in Saturday night’s $500,000 West Virginia Breeders’ Classic, a 1 1/8-mile race that is the featured attraction on the biggest card of the year for West Virginia-breds. The Classic goes as race 8 on a nine-race, all-stakes West Virginia Breeders’ Classic card worth a collective $1.2 million. All nine races drew full fields of 10 horses.

Russell Road won last year’s Classic by eight lengths over Peaceful Bliss in a driving rainstorm, the next-to-last race in a 3-year-old campaign in which he won 7 of 9 starts. He has won 3 of 7 as a 4-year-old this season, including an uncharacteristically poor performance in which he finished sixth, beaten 10 1/4 lengths, in the Frank Gall Memorial, the first time he has lost a race restricted to West Virginia-breds.

Owner Mark Russell said an illness that swept through the barn was likely to blame for Russell Road's sub-par performance.

"The whole barn had a respiratory infection,” Russell said.  “Nature’s Annuity had it, too," referring to the 6-year-old mare he will send out as a contender in the $250,000 Cavada for fillies and mares. " It was really tough to shake and he got caught up in it too.” 

Russell Road looked like his old self, however, winning a seven-furlong allowance prep last month, when he earned a 97 Beyer Speed Figure, two points shy of the number he posted in the 2009 Classic.

Russell said he is confident his horse is still good enough to repeat, something only Confucius Say (2001-2002) and Speed Whiz (2005-2006) have done in the 24-year history of the event.

“He’s still the same old Russell,” Russell said. “We had the setback during the summer with the heat and respiratory problems, but he redeemed himself in his last start. He ran lights out without even being asked.”

Russell Road, who would surpass $1 million in career earnings with a victory Saturday, will break from post 10 with regular rider Travis Dunkelberger aboard.

Black Belt will try to follow in the footsteps of Russell Road and Ghostly Thunder as the third straight 3-year-old to capture the Classic. Trainer Gerald Bennett tested Black Belt’s ability to go beyond seven furlongs when he ran him in the $250,000 Presque Isle Mile in early September. Black Belt finished fifth, beaten 5 1/2 lengths by Gayego, but Bennett said he felt that was respectable enough to take a shot in the Classic.

“We ran him in the Presque Isle Mile to see how he could handle the added distance,” Bennett said. “The fractions were pretty wicked, and he still finished well and was only beaten four or five lengths. I don’t have much concern about the distance after that race.”

Bennett said he also feels Black Belt will benefit from shifting back to dirt after running seventh on Presque Isle's synthetic Tapeta surface last time out.

"The first couple races at Presque Isle, the track was pretty tight, but it was a lot different at the end of the meet and in the race he ran in,” Bennett said.  “It was starting to get dug up and he just couldn’t get over it. He's a much better horse on dirt than he is on synthetic.”

The field also includes Ghostly Thunder, who has raced just six times since winning the 2008 Classic, and Raggedy Andy, who steps up to try the Classic after winning the seven-furlong Onion Juice last year.

In the other stakes:

◗ The 3-year-old filly Down Town Allen, disqualified despite finishing 7 1/4 lengths clear of her closest rival in last year’s Triple Crown Nutrition, seeks to make amends when she meets Aspenglow, winner of last fall’s West Virginia Division of Tourism for 3-year-old fillies, in the feature for fillies and mares, the $250,000 Cavada at seven furlongs (race 7).

Down Town Allen’s five-race winning streak was snapped when she finished fifth against open company in the Charles Town Oaks last month.

John Casey, the breeder, owner, and trainer of Down Town Allen, said his filly burned herself out in the Oaks.

“The pace was so fast that day,” he said. “Going the two-turn six furlongs in 1:10 and change is moving pretty good. I wouldn’t expect her to have to go that fast on Saturday.”

Like Down Town Allen, Aspenglow is a front-runner. She is 9 for 11 at Charles Town, including a 7-for-8 mark going seven furlongs.

“Our horse seems like she needs to be on the lead, but there’s no question that Down Town Allen will be right there as well,” Maryland-based trainer Gary Capuano said.

As insurance, Capuano has entered Silver Heart, a closer who is a seven-time winner at Charles Town and comes off a win in the Maryland Million Distaff Starter Handicap.

◗ Darth Tater, who missed by a neck as the even-money favorite last year, has a good chance to make amends in the $75,000, seven-furlong Onion Juice (race 4), thanks to the absence of defending champion Raggedy Andy, who’s shooting for the bigger purse in the Classic. The field includes Fool Proof, who won the West Virginia Lottery Classic two years ago but has been unraced since August 2009.

◗ Green Suede Shoes, second as the 6-5 favorite last year, and Lord of Dance, third after setting the pace a year ago, take another crack at the $75,000 Dash for Cash at 4 1/2 furlongs (race 6). Both horses are unraced since August.

◗ Jolie Ange, ninth as the 4-5 favorite on a sloppy track last year, and Belle of Camden, second as an 18-1 longshot in the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism, head a field of fillies and mares going 1 1/8 miles in the $75,000 Distaff (race 9).

◗ Son of a Bear, the winner of last year’s Vincent Moscarelli for 2-year-olds and no worse than second in 8 of 9 lifetime starts, must overcome post 10 in he $75,000 West Virginia Lottery for 3-year-olds going seven furlongs (race 5).

◗ Crusader’s Angel, who has been facing older horses in each of her last five starts and is one of only two fillies with more than two wins, merits a slight edge in the $75,000 West Virginia Division of Tourism for 3-year-old fillies going seven furlongs (race 3).

◗ Ann’s Mink, who won her first career race in a similar 4 1/2-furlong stakes in August and repeated facing open allowance company earlier this month, looks good in the $75,000 Triple Crown Nutrition for 2-year-old fillies at 4 1/2 furlongs (race 1).

◗ Golden Set, who earned a 90 Beyer for winning his maiden Oct. 2, and Just Your Way, second by a nose in the Henry Mercer Memorial in August, appear much faster than their competition in the $75,000 Vincent Moscarelli for 2-year-olds at 6 1/2 furlongs (race 2).