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Russell Road steps up big time
OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The contentious nature of Saturday's $250,000 Gotham Stakes is such that a horse who has won his last six starts by a combined 45 lengths and who is the highest money earner in the field could be the longest shot on the board in the Grade 3 race, to be run over Aqueduct's inner track.
Russell Road will bring a gaudy 6-for-7 record here from West Virginia with low-profile connections, but a sneaky-good pedigree. And while he has yet to race beyond seven furlongs, Russell Road has had plenty of two-turn experience, running six sprints around two turns at the bullring known as Charles Town, which is a six-furlong track.
James W. Casey trains Russell Road at Charles Town, but his son, James M. Casey, a trainer and veterinarian in Maryland, is the listed trainer outside of West Virginia.
"This is one of the nicest horses I've seen at Charles Town," said the 79-year-old James W. Casey, who began training horses full time in 1986, after retiring as a West Virginia high school basketball and football coach. "He's won all his races pretty easy, he always finishes strong and has not been asked a whole lot."
Russell Road is a son of Wheaton out of the mare Roberta Grump, who has thrown eight winners, including four stakes winners. Wheaton, who died in a stall accident at a Pennsylvania farm in 2006, was a half-brother to the prolific stallion Storm Cat.
Russell Road ventured out of West Virginia in his last start and won the Dancing Count Stakes, a six-furlong race at Laurel Park, by 1 1/4 lengths. He pressed the pace in the short field, then edged clear under Travis Dunkelberger and galloped out very well. He ran his final eighth in 11.72 seconds.
"I was really impressed the way he won in Maryland," Casey said. "He caught a little bit better stock and we backed up to six furlongs, but he handled it fine."
The Gotham will be run at 1 1/16 miles, which, along with the considerable rise in company, will be a question Russell Road will have to answer.
"He runs like he could go further, but I've seen them close going seven-eighths and they can't get a mile and a sixteenth," Casey said. "He's on top of his game. We know it's going to be a step up, but we're going to give it a shot."
Though it appears as such, owner Mark Russell did not name the gelding after himself. Russell Road actually had a name, It's a boy Grump, when Russell bought him for $23,500 late in his yearling year. Russell wasn't enthralled with the name and changed it to reflect the name of the road on which breeder Robert Lloyd's farm is located.
Russell, who operates a stained-glass restoration business in Virginia, said he has turned down several offers "from all over the country" for his gelding.
"If I was at the point where I really had to have the money then I certainly would have" sold, Russell said. "So far, I've been blessed to have had success in the stained-glass business. They say when they make you a good offer take the money or hit them in the mouth, because they just jinxed you. So far, he's dispelled that."
Russell Road is expected to breeze at Charles Town on Wednesday and ship to Aqueduct on Friday.
The field for the Gotham will be drawn Wednesday. Expected to join Russell Road in the entry box are Axel Foley, Haynesfield, I Want Revenge, Imperial Council, Masala, Mr. Fantasy, and Naos.
On Monday, Imperial Council worked four furlongs in 48.60 seconds at Payson Park, according to trainer Shug McGaughey. Imperial Council was expected to van up to Aqueduct on Tuesday.
After being sidelined due to shin issues following his maiden win last October, Imperial Council came back to win his 3-year-old debut, a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream on Feb. 14.
"Since he ran, he's been a very different horse," McGaughey said Monday. "His two works since he ran are as good as I could expect, especially at Payson. I think the race helped him and I think the time off helped him, too."
On Sunday at Hollywood Park, I Want Revenge worked five furlongs in 59.20 seconds, the second-fastest of 26 drills at the distance. At Palm Meadows, Masala worked five furlongs in 1:01, while his stablemate Naos went a half-mile in 49.71 seconds Sunday at Belmont Park.
Ah Day to return in Toboggan
The eight-time stakes winner Ah Day, away from the races since being injured last August, is scheduled to return in Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 Toboggan Stakes at six furlongs.
Ah Day came out of his sixth-place finish in the Teddy Drone Stakes at Monmouth Park on Aug. 3 with a bone injury, trainer King Leatherbury said. The 6-year-old Maryland-bred gelding was given ample time to recover and has been working steadily since early January. He drilled four furlongs in 46.20 seconds at Laurel on Saturday, his fourth consecutive bullet work.
"He's been working super," Leatherbury said Monday by phone from Maryland.
Leatherbury was hoping to bring Ah Day back in last month's General George but didn't think the gelding was ready by then. He chose the Toboggan after an allowance race at Laurel failed to fill.
Ah Day has won 10 of 23 starts and ran one of his best races off a similar layoff. In January 2008, Ah Day won the Fire Plug Stakes off a seven-month layoff, equaling a career-best 110 Beyer Speed Figure.
"That's when he usually comes back good, when he's fresh and after he's been laid up for awhile," Leatherbury said.
Leatherbury said he put future Hall of Famers Chris McCarron and Kent Desormeaux on their first stakes winners when they were apprentice riders in Maryland. He is hoping to do the same for Sheldon Russell, an apprentice who came here from Maryland and who is still seeking his first stakes win. Russell is 0 for 15 in stakes, but has finished second in his last three tries on this circuit.
"His style should fit this horse very well," Leatherbury said. "He impressed me when he came to Maryland, so I'm going to give him a shot."
Napravnik enjoys hot streak
Anna Napravnik was sorry to see February come to an end.
Napravnik, who turned 21 on Feb.o9, won 17 races from 98 mounts over the course of 19 cards here to vault to fifth place in the rider standings. The 17 wins for the month were second on this circuit only to leading rider Ramon Dominguez, who won 37 for the month.
Napravnik, who went 11 for 120 during December and January, has an inner-track record of 28 for 218. From Feb. 19 through Feb. 28, Napravnik went 10 for 44, winning at least one race on nine straight cards. That streak came to an end Sunday when she went 0 for 5.