Brittany Russell Makes Maryland History as Leading Trainer

Brittany Russell Makes Maryland History as Leading Trainer

First Female to Win Most Annual Races at Laurel Park & Pimlico
Jockey Jaime Rodriguez Also Doubles as Meet, Yearly Leader

LAUREL, MD – Brittany Russell’s meteoric career trajectory reached an historic height Sunday at Laurel Park when the 34-year-old, in just her fourth full season, became the first female to lead the annual trainer standings in Maryland.

Russell formally clinched the year-end title held since 2017 by Claudio Gonzalez when SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Diane Bashor, Robert Masterson, Waves Edge Capital, Catherine Donovan and Tom Ryan’s Point Dume ($3.20) cruised to a popular 11-length triumph in Race 3, a six-furlong maiden claimer for 2-year-olds.

The win gave Russell 118 victories at Laurel and historic Pimlico Race Course, finishing five ahead of runner-up Jamie Ness. It was also her 37th of the calendar year-ending fall stand and broke a tie with Ness for her fifth career individual meet training title.

Married to champion jockey Sheldon Russell, with whom she shares a daughter, Edy, and son, Rye, Russell set season highs across the board in 2023 with 687 starters, 177 wins, 141 seconds, 96 thirds and $7,996,867 in purse earnings. Nationally, she ranked 11th in wins and 16th in money won.

“I’m just so proud of the team. It’s a huge accomplishment for everybody and they’ve been working so hard,” Russell said. “Now that everybody pointed it out to us we’ve been keeping an eye on it the last two days, and it feels really good to seal it up.”

Her incredible year saw Russell win 15 stakes in Maryland, earning multiple wins with Hybrid Eclipse and Prince of Jericho. She also earned her first career Grade 1 triumph with Doppelganger in the Carter Handicap at Aqueduct and sent out Full Count Felicia to a popular victory in Saturday’s Suwannee River (G3) at Gulfstream Park.

“Obviously the highlight would have been Dopp winning the Grade 1. That was a pretty big accomplishment on the year,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of good horses and a lot of good winners this year. Shoot, yesterday Felicia won a Grade 3 for us so honestly to end with one like that is pretty huge, too. That felt pretty good.”

Russell has been part of history before, becoming just the fourth woman to win a Maryland meet training title last spring at Laurel – appropriately clinching the honor on Mother’s Day – and then the first to do it more than once after leading the standings at Pimlico’s Preakness Meet and Laurel fall.

Russell’s introduction to horses came at a young age while working at local farms growing up in Peach Bottom, Pa. The one-time amateur rider turned to training and worked for such trainers as Brad Cox, Jimmy Jerkens, Ron Moquett and late Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard before going out on her own, winning with her first starter, Oh My, Feb. 25, 2018 at Laurel.

After winning a combined 28 races with 112 starters in 2018 and 2019, Russell’s breakthrough year came in pandemic-shortened 2020 when she won 46 of 159 starters and surpassed the $1 million mark in season earnings for the first time. Russell went 71-for-274 in 2021, topping $2.8 million in purses earned and winning her first graded-stakes, the Bold Ruler (G3) at Aqueduct with Wondrwherecraigis on the day before her son was born. She won 100 of 453 races and banked $4.37 million in 2022.

“It’s like relationships that have grown, like with Stuart Grant for instance. I have a lot of horses for Stuart. Now I have horses for Mike Repole. Mike Dubb has always been in the barn. Now the SF, Starlight group with Madaket,” she said. “I have loads of them. Even some of my Maryland-based clients that are huge for my business and been so supportive, all of them. It’s awesome. I couldn’t do it without them.”

Grant, a prominent Delaware-based attorney that founded The Elkstone Group, which counts both Hybrid Eclipse and recently retired Wondrwherecraigis among its many stakes winners.

“I know a lot of people who have spent 15 or 20 years becoming an overnight success. Nobody sees all the years that she put in with all the top trainers when she was a gallop girl and an assistant trainer and really learned and really spent the time, and spent the time when it was a little bit tough,” Grant said. “She was with Brad Cox, but not necessarily when Brad was cruising at where he is now.

“She’s been doing this 15, 16, 17 years. It’s not an overnight success,” he added. “But when she did go out on her own I think she had a good, solid foundation. She’s really easy to work with. She communicates well. She’s very hands-on with the horses. She knows all of her horses, where they are and what’s going on.”

From her husband to assistants Luis Barajas and Emma Wolfe in Maryland and Sam Hopkins at Gulfstream, Russell lavishes praise on the entire team for her success.

“[Sheldon] does so much. I think the other thing is that we’ve had a lot of success, yes, but we’ve enjoyed doing it together. Honestly, it’s what makes it fun, having Sheldon and my crew there,” she said. “I have a good crew. It’s a crew that I really enjoy working with and I think that goes a long way. We spend a lot of hours at the barn, we spend a lot of hours at the races. It’s huge.”

Jaime Rodriguez ended 2023 as Maryland’s leading jockey with 166 wins, one of four riders to finish in triple digits along with Jeiron Barbosa (137), Jevian Toledo (130) and Angel Cruz (105). Rodriguez, also tops with more than $6 million in purse earnings, captured Sunday’s Race 9 finale on pickup mount Midnight Renegade ($5.80) to move him past Toledo, 50-49, for the fall meet title.

“We had a great year. Thank God everything came together in the last race and we got it done,” Rodriguez said. “It’s amazing. I never thought it was going to happen like that. I have the support from my family. That just makes me happy and make it more special. Once you have the support of the family, you just have to keep it going and keep working.”

Rodriguez, a 32-year-old native of Puerto Rico, rides first call for Ness and in his first full season in Maryland added Laurel winter and summer meet titles, while also leading the five-month Delaware Park stand that ended Nov. 4 for a third straight year in both wins and purse earnings.

Among his Maryland wins were stakes victories with 3-year-old Coffeewithchris in the Miracle Wood, Mavilus in the Conniver, Beth’s Dream in the Heavenly Cause and 2-year-old Copper Tax in the James F. Lewis III, all at Laurel.

Represented by agent John Weilbacher, Rodriguez tied Chuck Baltazar (1969) and Horacio Karamanos (2002) by riding a Laurel track record with seven wins on a single program March 17. Four of those winners were trained by Ness. He finished 2023 with career highs in starters (1,095) and purses earned ($8.2 million), while his 237 wins were second to 2022’s 243.

“He’s a really talented rider and a good person. He started riding for me two years ago and I don’t give him instructions. He knows all my horses. It makes such a big difference when you’ve got a rider that you’re on the same page with,” Ness said. “It’s like a coach and a auarterback. It’s huge. He had a great year, well-deserved. He’s been leading rider on two different fronts. I don’t know too many jocks that win at two different meets in two different states at the same time. That’s pretty rare.”

Laurel’s 38-day winter Heritage Meet opens Friday, Jan. 5 and runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Saturday, March 30.

Notes: Trainer Lacey Gaudet registered a New Year’s Eve hat trick with Cookie Bank ($7.80) in Race 6, Watch Your Tone ($11.60) in Race 7 and Midnight Renegade ($5.80) in Race 9 … Sunday featured mandatory payouts of $15,193.25 in the 50-cent Late Pick 5, $5,677 in the $1 Jackpot Super High Five and $384.30 for five of six winners in the 20-cent Rainbow 6.