At the age of 79, Frank Russo is enjoying his time in the sun. That doesn’t mean he’s content to just watch the time go by.
Far from it. The Brooklyn native is in his 46th year training Thoroughbreds, a career that has touched parts of six decades dating back to the mid-1970s. This week it has brought him to seasonable South Florida, where he will send out two strong contenders in Saturday’s Claiming Crown at Gulfstream Park.
The 23rd edition of the Claiming Crown is being held for a 10th consecutive year at Gulfstream. Created by the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association in partnership with the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, the Claiming Crown rewards and pays tribute to the horses and horsemen that provide the foundation for day-to-day racing programs at tracks around the country.
No one exemplifies that more than Russo, who is taking part in the $810,000 Claiming Crown for the second straight year. Both his horses, Belgrano in the $90,000 Canterbury Tom Metzen Memorial and Aequor in the $75,000 Express, earned automatic berths with Preview Day victories Oct. 10 at Laurel Park.
“We’re all set. It’s going to be nice,” Russo said. “I’ve got five horses. I walk down the barn and this is the first time [where] they all won their last race, and some of them have won their last two. It feels good to look at that after dealing with lesser horses.”
Post time for the first of 11 races Saturday is noon.
Peace Sign Stables’ Belgrano has developed into the best horse Russo has ever trained. Claimed at Gulfstream for $16,000 out of a third-place finish in February 2020, the 7-year-old War Front gelding has six wins, three seconds and two thirds in 17 subsequent starts including stakes victories in the 2020 Virgil ‘Buddy’ Raines and Aug. 28 Rainbow Heir at Monmouth Park.
Belgrano finished seventh of 12 in last year’s Canterbury, beaten 4 ¼ lengths by Fiya. He enters Saturday riding a three-race win streak, rallying for a 3 ¼-length decision at Laurel to earn a second straight bid.
“We got lucky with him. He came back about a month after we claimed him and then just went on winning starter races and stuff like that. He’s a nice horse,” Russo said. “He’s as honest as they come. I really like him.
“What I liked about him is, I looked at his back numbers, his closing numbers, and that he could run 1:10 and change. He wasn’t doing it and I said there’s got to be a reason,” he added. “We took him back and found a couple of nicks and crannies with him and we got him to go. He really turned out to be a nice horse.”
Morning Moon Farm’s Aequor, a gelded 6-year-old son of Flatter, has won each of his last two starts, by a nose Sept. 19 at Monmouth and a neck at Laurel. Both came in similar fashion, sitting just off the early lead before digging in late to prevail.
Aequor has been to the Claiming Crown before, finishing ninth in the 2019 Jewel for previous trainer Oscar Gonzalez. Russo haltered him for $6,250 out of a fifth-place finish Jan. 21 at Gulfstream, and he has gone 4-0-2 in 10 starts since.
“He’s doing great. He was another horse that had a couple of problems, minor problems,” Russo said. “I saw some numbers on him that I liked and he just went on to be a nice horse, a very good horse. He’s getting stronger as he gets older. We found some nicks and crannies with him, too, and when I say that, those are problems that a horse has that could be solved, within reason. There’s other problems they never solve. But, in his case, we found a couple nicks and he’s doing well now.
“It’s nice,” he added. “It’s great when you can claim a horse for $6,200 and he’s got a shot to run in something like this.”
Russo has enjoyed a similarly steady existence in racing, going back to his days visiting the New England fair circuit as a teenager.
“I grew up with horses all my life,” he said. “My uncle owned horses at Narraganset and I used to go and watch them. My father used to leave the butcher shop and go up there and gamble. They’d go to Bowie. It was something to do. I started with horses when I was about 14 or 15 and got to the racetrack when I was 17 and that was it.”
Russo worked as an exercise rider, galloping horses at Aqueduct and Belmont Park, and ultimately eschewed a more lucrative career opportunity in favor of staying with the game he has grown to love.
“I just stayed with it all my life. It just took priority. I could have been a millionaire in the printing business, but I let it go to be with my horses,” Russo said. “It was a family business – me and my brother. It had to be 40 years. We came down to Florida originally with the business and I brought a couple of horses down, and from that point I just stayed more and more with the horses. Finally my brother bought me out and that was it.”
Though Equibase statistics only date back to 1976, Russo said he ran his first horses in 1974 at old Calder Race Course. “I didn’t even win a race,” he said.
“But, we had a couple of seconds and we enjoyed it. That’s when I really got indoctrinated to the horses.”
To date, Russo has 138 wins and $2.1 million in purse earnings from 1,730 lifetime starters. His 13 wins this year from only 37 starters mark a career best; he went 12-for-132 in 1985. His $349,365 in purses earned are, by far, a personal best.
“We only have five [horses]. It’s enough for now but we’re looking to claim a couple more,” Russo said. “I’ve got a friend of mine that I’ve trained for for years and I’ve got a couple of my own, and we share the expenses and just go along with it. If something pops up, we’re doing good.
“It’s not so much me, it’s always the horses,” he added. “I attribute a lot to exercise riders and the horse itself. There’s so much you can do with a horse. After 50 years of training you should be able to find something. I’m not going to go another 50, that’s for sure.”
Russo credits exercise rider Finley Bishop with having a large hand in the trainer’s success this year.
“I’ve got to say, without him it’s rough,” Russo said. “He’s probably the best I’ve ever seen. I’ve known him since we’re young, since we came down to Florida in ‘74. He was with [trainer] Harry Benson. He’s very good on a horse, he can tell you something and he listens, and that’s important.
“I’ve got a farm up in Pennsylvania. Usually I take the winter off and I turn horses out on my farm up there, and this year I didn’t do it. We just came back down,” he added. “I love it.”
The Canterbury, a five-furlong turf dash for 3-year-olds and up which have started for a claiming price of $25,000 or less in 2020-21, drew an overflow field of 13 including 2020 third-place finisher Harry’s Ontheloose, Oct. 2 Laurel Dash winner Xy Speed and also-eligible Gran Malbec.
For 3-year-olds and up that have run for $8,000 or less lifetime, the six-furlong Express attracted nine horses, among them Guaco, riding a three-race win streak, and Kalu, most recently third in the Sept. 18 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash (G3) at Laurel.
Based on their qualifying wins, Russo comes to the Claiming Crown with confidence in each of his entries.
“I’m really excited about it,” he said. “I thought we might win or be close in both races, but the way they won I was very happy. They came out of it great and they’re training well, so I don’t have no excuses. They’re either going to run or not run.”