LAUREL, MD – The 2020 Thoroughbred season is drawing to an historic close in Maryland, and not just for a pandemic that paused racing for 2 ½ months from mid-March to late May. With three racing days left in Laurel Park’s fall meet that began Oct. 8, Brittany Russell and Claudio Gonzalez are tied atop the trainer standings with 22 wins apiece. Live racing returns Saturday, Dec. 26 with the Christmastide Day program of eight stakes worth $850,000 in purses led by the $150,000 Allaire du Pont (G3).
Laurel will also host live cards Sunday, Dec. 27 and Thursday, Dec. 31 before opening its 2021 winter meet Friday, Jan. 1. Post time is 12:25 p.m. Gonzalez, a 44-year-old cancer survivor, has won 11 of the last 12 meets in Maryland dating back to Laurel’s 2017 spring stand, and owns or shares 14 titles overall. He will finish with the most wins in the state for a fourth consecutive year.
Russell, meanwhile, is in position to join an exclusive club in just the third year since going out on her own. Only two women have ever led the trainer standings in Maryland – Karen Patty (1992 Pimlico Race Course spring) and Mary Eppler (2016 Laurel fall).
“It’s funny, because a lot of people ask us about it. We’re just trying to stay humble. We’re trying to focus on the horses and walk them over there ready to go,” Russell, 31, said. “Each individual getting a win is more the goal as opposed to winning a meet. Yeah, it would be fantastic to win the meet and a huge feat for me from a career standpoint, but we’re just trying to stay humble and focus on each horse.”
Russell has three starters on Laurel’s nine-race card Saturday – Out of Sorts in the $100,000 Gin Talking for 2-year-old fillies, Reassured in the $100,000 Howard County for 2-year-olds and Whereshetoldmetogo in the $100,000 Dave’s Friend for sprinters 3 and up – and one starter on Sunday. Gonzalez will run Miss Leslie in the $100,000 Anne Arundel County for 2-year-old fillies, Lebda in the Dave’s Friend, Harpers First Ride in the $100,000 Native Dancer for 3-year-olds and up going 1 1/8 miles and Landing Zone in the du Pont. Leading the meet in starters (116) and purse earnings ($794,790), he has three more entered for Sunday.
Russell’s wins have come with just 45 starters at the meet (49 percent).
“It’s fun, it’s satisfying. This is why we all do it. We all work very hard and we try and have the horses as right as we can every time they walk over,” Russell said. “If I enter a horse, we’re entering it because it’s doing well and we’re trying to put it in a spot where we think it can win. It’s rewarding for the team. Everybody wants to win. That’s’ why we show up every day, to try and help this horses win. Hopefully we can keep it rolling.”
Russell worked for trainers Brad Cox, Jimmy Jerkens, Ron Moquett and Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard before going out on her own, winning with her first career starter, Oh My, on Feb. 25, 2018 at Laurel. A former amateur rider married to Laurel’s leading jockey Sheldon Russell, she has seen her number of starters, winners and purse earnings increase each year, topping the $1 million mark in 2020. Brittany Russell has 43 wins from 153 starters in 2020 led by stakes winners Hello Beautiful and Whereshetoldmetogo. She has enjoyed particular success with 2-year-olds, going 15-for-39 (38 percent) this year and finishing in the top three 31 times (79 percent).
“I was lucky this year, they just sent me some nice horses. We do have some good stock in the barn,” Russell said. “I’m not the type to try and push a horse to have them ready for when the first 2-year-old races come out. In 2020, with the first 2-year-old races kind of showing up later, they were just kind of all coming around and getting ready when those races were starting to be written anyway. “It hasn’t been anything special, just good horses and they’re ready at the right time. I have good clients and they let me take my time,” she added.
“When you start getting pressure and feeling anxious about getting a horse to the races that’s when you start doing things and I think if you just let the come along the way they want, it just pays off.”
Sheldon Russell holds a 42-33 lead over Jevian Toledo in the race for the fall meet riding title. Toledo has won with seven of his last 16 mounts, including a four-win day Dec. 20, to close the gap. Both riders are represented by agent Marty Leonard. Russell was Maryland’s overall leading rider in 2011 and owns seven meet titles, the most recent being Laurel winter 2015. Toledo led all local riders in wins in 2015 and 2017 and five meet titles, all at Laurel, the last coming in spring 2018.
Photo and Release Courtesy of MJC