There was a time many years ago when Russ Sutherland thought he might make a living racing horses.
He soon learned otherwise and eventually started his own masonry business in Morenci. But that wasn’t the end of his association with horses. Not by any means.
“We’ve been in it three times,” his wife, Maxine, said.
Russ’s first foray was back in the 1960s, and when that ended, he was out for about 20 years.
“In 2001 I got back in and then in 2005 I really got into it,” he said.
“He says it’s a hobby,” Maxine said, “but I think it’s more like a business.”
As a trainer and horse owner, Russ is at the track seven days a week to put horses through the paces. On a race day, he might leave the house at 3 p.m. and return at 3 a.m.
If it’s just a hobby, it can become an all-encompassing one that takes over a large portion of a person’s life.
It may take a lot of time, but there’s an agreement in the Sutherland house that it won’t take a lot of their money. The venture is self-supporting or else.
“We don’t have to live off it,” Maxine said, “and if it starts taking money from us, it’s over.”
And as a retired person, Russ knows he can just get out of the business if he has to—if he can force himself to—because he doesn’t need a racing income to get by.
It’s no way to get rich, he says, but money can be made—especially when the right horse comes along.
Russ serves as the trainer for Maremma, a three-year-old filly owned by Donna Moore of Clayton. Maremma earned more than $85,000 in her first two years and was named the 2010 Michigan Sire Stakes champion trotter.
Maremma’s award was announced at the Michigan Harness Horseman’s Association banquet in January. That’s when Russ learned that he missed winning Trainer of the Year by a fraction of a point. The winning trainer’s average score came from 17 starts last season. Russ’s score came from 100 starts.
“I put my horses in a little tougher competition,” he said, “but I don’t worry about an award. I worry about dollars and cents. I’ll have six horses in the barn next month.”
Russ trains two horses for Donna and they own one horse together. He’s a part owner of four other horses.
He sees an advantage to ownership.
“Better if I own them so I can just cuss myself out,” he says.
Russ figures a horse needs to clear at least $15,000 a year in winnings if the owner pays a trainer to work the animal.
“If a horse doesn’t make money, you need to get rid of it,” he said.
Russ puts about 25,000 miles a year on his truck through the horse business. Wheels for the lightweight cart (called a bike) can cost $1,200 each. There’s feed, vet bills, shoeing costs and stable rent. An owner needs to invest from $5,000 to $8,000 in the first place to come up with a horse that’s going to earn money.
“What I don’t know doesn’t hurt me,” Maxine said as the costs are rattled off.
Making money on harness racing continues to get tougher in Michigan, Russ said, because the payoffs are more lucrative in the east.
“The cheapest purse in New York is $9,000,” he said. “That’s our highest purse. It’s a bleak outlook for Michigan. We’re hoping for some changes with the new legislators.”
The small purse hurts, along with the advent of casinos. Many states allow casinos at racetracks and those states rake in millions of dollars for their general fund.
Russ has heard that the number of people involved in Michigan’s horse racing industry shrunk from about 35,000 to 12,000 in recent years. He knows of several Michigan drivers who now race in eastern states.
“We’re racing now for what we did in the 1970s. It’s tough going,” says Russ. “Lots of people are in it year after year and they never make a cent.”
He can’t operate that way, but that wasn’t a concern in the last season.
“I had a good year,” Russ said, “an exceptionally good year.”
A fairly consistent top-three finish is needed to make it financially, Russ said, and his horses often do.
“I’d like to stay in another four or five years,” he said.
Probably 10 years, Maxine says.
“No young guys are getting into racing and too many of us old guys are cutting back,” Russ said.
He’s still at it seven days a week and cutting back isn’t on his current agenda.
“It’s something to pass the time,” he said. “And it really passes my time.”
Content to serve as a trainer
By DAVID GREEN
In the harness racing business, there’s typically an owner, a trainer and a driver.
Russ Sutherland spends countless hours taking laps around a track, but never as a driver.
“1970 was the last time I drove,” he said. “I’ve been a trainer ever since.”
Today’s horses are well bred and travel fast—under two-minute miles—and a driver needs to make split-second decisions. That’s not for Russ.
He’s been through it all before, following an unruly horse across the track and through the fence, and now he’s satisfied to pass his time as a trainer.
His top success lately is the three-year-old filly, Maremma, owned by Donna Moore of Clayton. She was named Michigan’s top female trotter for her age in 2010.
Three years ago Donna didn’t know what she had in Maremma, named after a region of Italy’s Tuscany. She tried to sell the horse at the 2008 yearling sale in Lansing, but not a bid was heard.
She brought the horse back home and turned her over to Russ, a veteran trainer who has worked with many horses in the past decade.
Maremma won five of nine starts in her first year out and took 10 of 18 in 2010, including a string of seven wins and her career-best time of 1:58.
Maremma doesn’t fit into the old saw about trotters: Put a glass of water on their back and it won’t spill as they run.
There’s hike in her hip when she runs, Russ said. It doesn’t look smooth, but it certainly doesn’t affect her lap around the track. Russ tells her drivers to keep their eyes on her ears rather than on her rear end.
Russ is at the track every day to exercise his horses. He describes his job as teaching them manners.
“They come in as babies,” he says, and he begins to work with them in their second year.
The first day he leaves them in the stall. He tries to get a harness on them and just lets them run.
The second day he attaches two lines and walks behind the horse. A third person holds a line attached to a head halter.
“If it goes well, we put them on a jog cart the next day,” Russ said.
It’s a lighter bike used for training, with two people riding on it. By the fourth day he’s on his own.
“You go out every day with them,” Russ said. “You start with two miles for the first week, three miles for week three, then we bump it up to four miles for the rest of the month.”
In all of this work, the horse is running the wrong direction around the track, but after a month it’s introduced to the correct direction for racing.
He drives it two miles the wrong way, then one mile the right way—and picking up speed when it’s the right direction.
“After you turn, they know it’s time to go faster,” he explained.
After 90 days or so, he gets them ready to race, and after four or five starts, there’s not much training left to do.
“Everybody thinks it must be easy, but sometimes it gets tricky,” Russ said. “There are a lot of tricks. There’s really quite a lot to it.”
Spending that much time with a horse, Russ gets to know them well.
“I know ’em like I know the back of my hand,” he said. “I know them better than my kids.”
Just call them his extended family.