Harness race king Sanders Russell wins the Hambletonian, at age 62

Posted by | February 23, 2017

[Walter] Sanders Russell (1900-1982), was born in Stevenson, Alabama. Sanders began harness racing while still in high school and won his first race in 1915. The U.S. Trotting Association’s official records credit him with 1,116 first places, 531 seconds and 503 thirds. He won more than 20 major stakes with world records in 1946 and ‘55. His total winnings were over $2,000,000. In 1962, at age 62 and recovering from a broken leg, Sanders won the famed Hambletonian on A.C.’s Viking.

—-Alabama Sports Hall of Fame

On A Clear Day from Tennessee’s Lookout Mountain you can even see Stevenson, AL, 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.

A 1951 harness-racing matinee at the Russell Stables training track.

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 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, IL, 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.

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. 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 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, TN fair.

It hasn’t been any other way since. His brother, I. Pickens (Pick) Russell III, manages the large Russell farm spreads majoring in top beef cattle & 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, was 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.

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 two-year olds and Viking.

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 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, AL, is very apt to keep Mr. Sanders Russell on course and steady as she goes.

“Sanders Russell….. Pride Of Dixie!” by Earl Flora, ‘Harness Horse Magazine,’ December 1962


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