RUSSELL-TALK Three Generations of RUSSELLS... Talk "Harness Horses". Web Design by Katherine Elizabeth Phillips, RUSSELL FAMILY Historian and Volunteer Webmaster. also known as KATHRYN
My Grandfather Russell, known by locals as "Mr. Pick", owned, bred, and trained many famous harness horses at "Russell Stables" since 1897. His sons, SANDERS and ISRAEL PICKENS RUSSELL,III carried that tradition forward proudly, as did his grandsons : WALTER S. RUSSELL, Henry B. Russell & Harold Russell Phillips Copyright Protected, DO NOT COPY,'Hoof Beats Magazine'"
ON A CLEAR DAY from Tennessee's Lookout Mountain you can even see Stevenson, Alabama, which, virtually motionless, snuggles a valley some 50 miles to the southwest as the crow and A. C.'s Viking, in the stretch, fly.
"Motionless" may not be quite the right word for Stevenson. This is the heart of the great power fountain, which is the Tennessee Valley Authority. This is also textile country, one vast stand after another of rich timber and a land its sweating forefathers never left to keep pressing west.
The hard and fast population of greater Stevenson hangs at about 1300 persons all happily cloaked in seclusion and benign tranquility a few rolling miles off the main drag between Chattanooga and Birmingham. The Tennessee River meanders nonchalantly through the near by countryside, a true reflection of the people who live long lives along its verdant watershed. Peaceful is its countenance, but mighty is its industrial backbone.
Back to this land from faraway places each late autumn comes a solitary man who has been one of the very few hereabouts to seek and take his fortune elsewhere. The return of the native, you might say. And in truth, Sanders Russell has done more to put Stevenson on the map than Rand McNally or the Avondale Textile Mill and the Chicamauga Cedar Co. combined.
For nigh onto 25 or 30 years now Sanders Russell has been famous among harness people for disappearing back to "someplace called Stevenson, Alabama" after the racing season in the north, east and west is completed. But if one calls him famous amongst the harness folk for this, one should see how really famous he is for this in Stevenson, itself.
Particularly in the November of 1962, a year when Mr. Russell and a great bay colt named A. C.'s (initials only) Viking had come thundering down the stretch at Du Quoin, Ill., to capture the coveted Hambletonian. There had been 15 trotting horses in this annual 3 year old classic and the dash for home had looked like a cavalry charge, but in straight heats Mr. Russell and the Viking had exploded through what little daylight was available to whip the likes of Stanley Dancer and Del Miller and Johnny Simpson and Joe O'Brien.
So it was that on a warm night in November of 1962 in Stevenson, Alabama, there was a testimonial dinner for Mr. Russell in the high school gymnasium and the good ladies of the town baked biscuits, tenderized ham and conjured up potato salad like a northerner had never tasted before. There were balloons bearing Mr. Russell's name flying all over the place and a sulky, propped up vertically on its wheels, framed the speaker's rostrum.
Mr. Russell's first grade teacher was one of the very few town folk who could not be there that night. Mr. Russell, himself, is age 62, and his first schoolteacher in Stevenson has for many years now been bedridden. But she sent a note for someone else to read at the stage microphone. It testified in part:
"As you must understand I have always been inclined to frown on betting at race tracks, but now I would dearly love to be up and around just to visit a track and place a healthy bet on Sanders."
Master of ceremonies Rev. Robert Murphree, pastor of the Methodist church in Stevenson, added: "I can certainly understand this dear lady's feeling and I would be profoundly inclined to tag right along with her."
The statistic wasn't checked but there probably hadn't been a testimonial dinner in Stevenson since Gen. Robert E. Lee jogged confidently through the territory in the 1860's. But for some 50 years Sanders Russell had been building up for the occasion. The smashing Hambletonian victory was merely frosting on a town-wide celebration that had been long coming for the USTA director from southern District 6.
Factually, Stevenson can't remember when there weren't some Russells around to whom it owed much. Sanders' great granddaddy had taken over a large expanse of the good earth just outside of Stevenson away back in the days when Andrew Jackson, himself, was signing over land grants to worthy settlers. Sanders still proudly displays the two homesteader grants signed by President Jackson. And towering majestically to the rear of Sanders' farm spread is Russell Mountain, a foothill member of the beauteous Cumberland chain. Families that have whole mountains named after them are not exactly a dime a dozen.
From the very beginning up until the present time the Russells have, as the good citizens of Stevenson will voluntarily testify, been tremendously civic minded. Active in the church, charities and in all community projects from housing transient TVA workers to adding wings on the hospital, the Russells will leave much more than a mountain behind them as a heritage to Stevenson.
Strong as has been the general report, however, that Sanders' harness racing nickname of "Preacher" stems from his being a Methodist minister back in Stevenson during the winter months, it is not true. Mr. Russell is a member of the church board of stewards all right, but the "Preacher" tag actually came from an entirely different direction.
"I was racing in New York when the 'What's My Line?' show first appeared on television," Sanders grins, "and I had a Negro groom who practically insisted that I get myself on that show. 'Put a Bible underneath your arm and clean all that horse stuff off the bottom of your boots, Mr. Russell,' he told me, 'and you'll look like the sharpest preacher man ever to come out of the south."
It's true., Gentle in voice and manner, easy to smile and chuckle and with piercing blue eyes beneath well groomed white hair, Sanders Russell could easily be taken for a man of the cloth instead of a man of the silks. Except on the racetrack, that is, where he is a demon with a trotting horse. Yes, quiet, patriarchal looks be hanged. Sanders Russell is actually a salty old dog and a calloused old veteran when that starting gate pulls ahead and swings closed. He won the Hambletonian with an ankle that had been so badly sprained in an accident that he had to move to and from his sulky on crutches.
There have been horses in Sanders Russell's life ever since he can remember. As a sideline to farming his daddy raised and sold "road horses" the type used for buggy transportation in those days. From these horse and buggy days and back road racing between neighbors evolved, of course, the modern day racing animal and sport. When he was 15 Sanders drove his first goose pimpling victory, behind Sammy R at the Winchester, Tenn. fair.
It hasn't been any other way since. His brother, I. Pickens (Pick) Russell Ill, manages the large Russell farm spreads majoring in top beef cattle and hogs and Sanders deals strictly in Standardbred horses. During the winter months on the half-mile track below the two Russell homes Pick also helps Sanders train a public stable that has reached 50 head for 1963.
Small southern fairs and the more fruitful Indiana and Ohio fair circuits provided Sanders Russell, Mrs. Russell (the former Evelyn Willis of Stevenson) and their two sons, Walter and Henry, with a comfortable living during those earlier times. Prestige of the Russell stable grew rapidly, accelerated by Sanders' seemingly inherent ability to artistically train trotting colts. His patience with young horses, his knack of drawing out the best qualities of a trainee Standardbred, were obvious from the start.
"Horses are like children, exactly," Sanders says. "You must be patient with them and realize every minute that each of them will present you an entirely different 'personality', an entirely different problem. You must coax them, cajole them and yet be firm with them on certain pointers. A horse that grows up without manners will give you headaches 'til the end."
It was only fitting that A. C.'s Viking, serene and imperturbable in his new barn stall these days in his role, as the latest star to fall on Alabama, should hand Sanders Russell his greatest thrill last summer at Du Quoin.
"He is the most well mannered horse I have ever seen anywhere, the perfect race horse," Sanders reports. "He will take and accept any signal you give him, will race any type of race you want and doesn't fall into any kind of habit by having sometimes to race the same type of race two or three times in succession. His power is doggone near secondary."
There were other horses before A. C.'s Viking, horses that carried the Sanders Russell brown and tan colors off the fair circuits to the large pari mutuel tracks and the Grand Circuit and kept them there. Hal Tryax and Sir Laurel Guy were memorable ones, as were Tronita, Spring Hill, Dr. Billy, Pete Spencer, Junior Counsel, Try Wyn, Johnnie Brown, Queen Wilkes, Aimee Scot, Jewelry, Graydon and Kedrie.
On a living room wall in the Russell's sprawling ranch home is a large colored picture of Sanders behind Chestertown, taken the August day in 1947 when the 4 year old bay colt won the big Roosevelt two-mile trot in 4:192/5. In a loaded trophy case in the same room are testimonies of his 1959 win in the Batavia Downs Colt & Filly Stake behind Farand Hanover, his triumph in the Bloomsburg Fair Stake the same year with the same horse and a conquest in the 1961 Hanover Hempt Farm Stake with a 2 year old colt named A. C.'s Viking.
A. C.'s Viking was to win $198,000 in 1962 (including the Yonkers Futurity and the Hambletonian two of the three jewels in harness racing's triple crown), more than any other 3 year old trotter in history. Sanders assures that the addition of A. C. Peterson's horses including the Viking to his stables was one of the nicest things that has happened to him in these latter day years. Sanders points out that the amazing Mr. Peterson, now 69, was one of 21 sons and daughters on a farm in Jutland in Denmark and that he is a self made man whom Mr. Russell admires as much as anyone he has ever met.
"Naturally I wanted to leave home," is the way Peterson puts the story to Russell. "I didn't want to go on milking cows and shoveling manure for $100 a year. I wanted to go to America and be a cowboy.
"When I was 19, I sailed across in steerage (modest quarters in the after hold) and landed with 50 borrowed dollars in my pocket. I didn't know a word of English, but I had an uncle in Hartford, so I went there and got a job in a leather shop at $8 for 60 hours work. My uncle thought I was crazy to give up that security to become a milkman."
After buying up land on Hartford's perimeter that obviously would have to be absorbed in the expanding city, Peterson bought land cheap and sold dear. The rest is one of the great immigrant success stories of America. Peterson now has eight dairy farms, buys milk from 100 other farms and has sales running to $3 million a year. He bought his first harness horse in 1945, a broodmare named Volo Mae. She foaled his one time champion mare, Volo A. C., which in turn was the dam of A. C.'s Viking.
Six years ago Sanders convinced Joe MacDonald, the Scotsman from Canada, that he should join forces with the Russell stable as assistant trainer and driver. This is listed by Sanders as another most important recent day development. The canny Scot did much of the stakes driving this year, for instance (winning 90 odd races), while Russell concentrated on training and conditioning the twoČ-year olds and Viking.
MacDonald took a long, deep bow at Sanders' behest the night of the Stevenson testimonial, as did Eldridge (Tiny) Rogers, Sanders' groom for 40 years, and Chattanooga meat market man E. A. Bostain, who joined hands with Russell in 1921 and later turned over Hal Tryax for training. Hal Tryax gave Mr. Russell his first two-minute ride.
Nice people deserve many nice things, and besides his very charming wife Mr. Russell has two sons who reflect their upbringing. Walter is on leave from the faculty of Georgia Tech while working on a Ph.D., and has been the presiding judge at Bay State Raceway the past three summers. Henry, a graduate of the University of Chattanooga, is a professor of languages at the University of Illinois and studying for a doctorate.
In a day and age when the average age of the nation's leading drivers is plunging lower and lower, it was only natural, it is supposed, that a newspaper man asked Sanders Russell on the night of his dinner if he had any retirement plans.
"I think not," Mr. Russell responded gently, "Bi Shively won the Hambletonian when he was 73, you know. I quite frankly am looking forward to next season and a string of them after that."
The good life in Stevenson, Alabama, is very apt to keep Mr. Sanders Russell on course and steady as she goes.
Source:Family Library of archived materials from Harness Horse Magazines from the 1960s and '70s. The Russell Family always looked forward to the most current issues of these "trade magazines" which arrived by mail at their post office boxes in Stevenson!
A Dangerous Trend....
I have noticed many stakes offered on the Grand Circuit this year for horses not having records faster than 2:06, and am wondering what this is expected to accomplish.
If it results in a larger entry and closer contests it might in some way be justified, but is there any reason to believe it will do that? We can only observe the contests in these races as compared to those based solely on money winning classification and see the results. I notice the fourteen trot at Indianapolis has the largest entry yet published and should result in a close and fast contest.
The object of all classification is to bring horses of as nearly equal ability as possible, together; and while we can never tell what star may show up to dominate his fields, yet must endeavor to bring together as nearly as possible, horses of equal merit. This judged, of course, by past performances. As we know, record classification has always put a premium on horses and horsemen who have been able to keep the class of their horses from the public, or at least from being officially recognized. Why is it not better to encourage a fast record, either by winning a race or against time, than to encourage racing for second money or the going of a sensational trial privately, yet to race with horses of much inferior calibre? For example, a number of horses took records as fast as 2:05 last season while others barely beaten in 2:03 took no record indicative of their real ability. This record classification bars the 2:05 horse, yet allows the horse with demonstrated capacity close to two seconds faster to start. Will this not encourage racing horses for second money, or it's kindred evil, the supression of time? The latter has always followed closely record classification.
Many breeders and owners like to have their horses given fast records that can be officially recognized. They are paid no money for these performances so why should they be penalized by being barred from many rich stakes while horses of much greater known ability, yet without the fast record, are privileged to start in them, solely because they have no official recognition of these efforts or have been managed so as to avoid a record faster than a certain time.
Among the hundreds of horses I saw race the past season, I only saw two pulled for the purpose of keeping eligible to a certain class, as governed by their earnings. With the present trend I expect to see numerous examples of horses being taken back to avoid a record, or a return to the pernicious habit of time suppressing which so nearly wrecked our sport 20 years ago. It is possible for a horse to make a complete sweep of his half mile track engagements and never take a record faster than 2:06, yet another horse taking a record of 2:05 over a good mile track is barred, thus allowing the faster of the two horses to start where the other, having an official record in keeping with his ability is barred. It takes speed, manners and stamina to make a horse win races and there has never yet been devised a fairer method of bringing them together than by their earnings. Our contests the past few years, have shown us that horses were closely matched and close and fast contests have resulted while they are being classed by their winnings. Any tendency to return to record classification encourages most of the forms of cheating so prevalent a few years ago when as a matter of his own protection and to conserve the value of his horse, owners were forced either not to win at all, or to win with just as slow a record as possible.
An owner has a nice trotter, sends him to the races and wins a small purse in fast time. He has the thrill and kick that comes with owning a good horse, yet how does he feel when made to realize that he has cheapened his horse and curtailed his future usefulness very materially? The money classification gradually works a horse into a faster class, the record classification jumps him into a fast class from the green class by the winning of one cheap race in fast time. The former is self enforcing to a large degree, while the latter not only admits, but encourages, so much trickery that both the public and the owner is disgusted.
There may be other forms of classifying horses that would be beneficial, handicaps as well as selling races have their place, but for the good of the sport let's do all we can to prevent a return to record classification with all it's attendant evils.
I. P. Russell,
Stevenson, Ala., May 31, 1938.
(Let it be duly noted that my grandfather Russell frequently expressed his opinions in "Letters to the Editor" published in local newspapers and harness horse trade journals. He believed in searching for ways to improve his beloved sport, and in presenting his opinions freely and openly, "without Fear nor Favor"; as he strongly believed in Freedom of Speech!)
Until that long awaited time that harness racing finally enjoys a Reconstruction of its very own in his native South, Walter Sanders Russell Jr. will continue to serve the purposes of that institution up here in the North, or more specifically at The Meadows.
Russell, the presiding judge at the plant that sits two miles from where Adios sired entire generations of 2 minute pacers, is one of the most respected officials in the harness racing business. Like his father before him, he came North, partly out of adventure, partly out of necessity.
"Harness racing enjoyed an historic era in the South between 1900 1930, but when the economy deteriorated and claimed the agricultural fairs, harness racing just about died down there," related Russell, who, when not monitoring trotters and pacers at The Meadows, puts the finishing touches on his Ph. D in Humanities at Atlanta's Emory University.
But a few men would not let the sport expire in the South. They had one alternative when the fair tracks were abandoned, later to become housing developments.
"They could pack their gear and head for the places where the sport was prospering," added Russell. "It wasn't very glamorous, but it was better than waiting for the sport to return, and it hasn't returned yet."
One of those men was Walter's father Sanders Russell, who, at 75, is still active in the sport. It was on to Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and any place else they could get their stock raced.
"I guess I was six years old (he's now 49) when I would accompany my mom and dad on those trips North," Russell recalled.
"My dad would work out of our Stevenson, Ala. home, where he still lives today, and it would be our whole summer. I loved it. I didn't need much else to keep me going. "
There was one thing that provided a suitable diversity for young Russell. His uncommon aptitude for learning was becoming apparent. It shows today.
Walter Russell has either been enrolled or has taught at a half dozen colleges. Harness racing has forced only one concession time. But within a few months Professor Russell will earn his doctorate. His thesis?
"It goes something along the lines of politics and the arts in the 1920s. I won't go into it. It would take up too much time, " he said.
Russell's educational accomplishments are visible on his dossier. But he's at least equally proud of his work with horses.
"I groomed and trained horses up until a time for my father. I think I realized that I didn't literally want to follow in his footsteps after I could understand all that living out of a suitcase he had to go through. That end of the story has never appealed to me ." Russell has always been able to work harness racing into a compatible schedule with his intellectual pursuits. When he worked several summers at Bay State Raceway in Massachusetts, Russell found ample time to earn his master's degree at Vanderbilt.
And when he was state steward for the Maryland Racing Commission, Russell was able to teach English courses at American U. in Washington, D.C.
And at The Meadows, where racing goes 200 dates from February to December' Russell has worked out an agreeable plan that lets him have the necessary time off for his "other life."
"The man is a man is a tremendous asset to The Meadows," said John Townsend, the track's general manager. "He has great respect in the trade. Five years ago, when we were looking for a presiding judge, Delvin (Miller) suggested Walter immediately. Del liked the idea of a guy with his own racing experience being in the judge's booth. Walter has great understanding and empathy with our horsemen. Del said he was the best racing official he knew, and that was good enough reference for us."
Russell treasures many memories of his involvement in the sport, but none more than the afternoon he took a certain filly trotter out for a jog for his dad, who was lining up some racing recruits for the following year.
"I took this filly down the road only the second time she was ever hitched. She was a dream," he said. "I came back to the barn and told the boys I thought she had a lot of promise. Her name was Fresh Yankee."
Russell's first assignment as a racing official came from the late Walter Gibbons, then the G. M. at Foxboro. "I had done just about everything else at Foxboro, so he thought I might be qualified to be a judge. I didn't think about it much, but after I passed the test, I was suddenly an associate judge."
A year later he was promoted to presiding judge, and Russell's harness racing avocation now pointed in a different direction.
He has seen the sport prosper in a way that no one would have envisioned a few decades ago. He is reasonably optimistic about the sport's future. But he voices concern, too.
"As I see it, the state of the sport is healthy, but turbulent," he said. "There are many issues. We have so much racing today. Can we stand this much racing? And exotic betting poses a question. Is this a short term shot in the arm, but also a long term headache?
"You see a lot of miles in 1:5 8 today, but also more mediocre miles than ever before. We see racing today that years ago wouldn't have gotten past the race secretary's office."
Russell enjoys the bloodline aspects of the sport more than anything, and cautioned, "Watch out for the Super Bowl breed. He was the best three year old I've seen, and now with some of the major trotting sires getting old, he has a great chance to dominate the sport. "
The greatest thrill he's realized in the judge's stand occurred with the dead heat finish between Strike Out and Jay Time in the 1972 Adios. "I don't recall any other major race that was decided in a dead heat. No, I didn't look that photo finish picture over any longer than usual. That wouldn't have been just, would it?"
When Russell isn't busy with teaching or racing, he likes to find time to talk about Faulkner and Eliot. He can offer a dissertation on any one of a thousand things. Yes, he is a most talented man.
And they were reminded of that once again one night this summer at John and Jackie Townsend's home. Russell whose taste in music runs from Bach to "Lying Eyes" discovered the Townsends' baby grand, and the concert was on.
The dinner guests should not have been so surprised. Townsend could have told them Russell's resume indicated some training in music.
You see, along with everything else, Walter Russell also studied. at Juliard.
Walter Russell, son of veteran reinsman Sanders Russell, has been around horses and horsemen all of his life.
At age 81 in 2007, Walter S. Russell, only surviving son of Sanders and Evelyn Russell, relaxes on a recent visit to his hometown of Stevenson, Alabama. Photo:Courtesy of his cousin, Sam Alston of Atlanta, GA.