walter s. russell, jr.
Highly respected harness racing judge Walter Sanders Russell, Jr., a Ph.D. scholar and accomplished pianist, was born in Stevenson, Alabama on August 10, 1926 to Hall of Fame trainer/driver Sanders Russell and his wife Evelyn. A member of a distinguished harness racing family whose involvement with the sport dates back to the late 1890s, Russell began working with horses as a youngster. By the age of six, after the small southern fairs had begun to close, he traveled with his parents to race meets in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
He was drafted into the army at the age of 18 and served for two years. After demobilization, he rejoined his father, who had moved his stable to the New York and Boston areas, to assist him with grooming and training chores.
One of Russell's finest memories was of the time he jogged a promising filly who had been hitched only once before. Her name was Fresh Yankee. Trained and driven originally by Sanders Russell, she would go on to become North America's first million-dollar trotter, the 1970 Horse of the Year, and a 1998 Hall of Fame Immortal. Another highlight was the time he spent conditioning A.C.'s Viking, his father's 1962 Hambletonian Stake winner.
While maintaining his involvement in the sport, Russell chose intellectual pursuits, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alabama, a Master of Arts in music from Peabody College, a master's degree in music from Vanderbilt University and a Ph.D. in the humanities from Emory University. He also attended The Juilliard School in New York City. He taught classes at the university level at four schools, where he seized the opportunity to introduce many a student to the sport of harness racing. While a state steward for the Maryland Racing Commission, Russell taught English courses at American University in Washington, D.C.
Russell's early experience as a racing official began when he was appointed as assistant starter to Hall of Fame Immortal Stephen G. Phillips, inventor of the mobile starting gate. This was followed by his appointment as an associate judge at Bay State Raceway (Foxboro) and a presiding judge a year later. Russell also served in that capacity at the The Red Mile, the Meadowlands, Hinsdale Raceway, Ocean Downs, Pompano Park, The Meadows, Laurel Park, Freestate Raceway, Hazel Park and Louisville Downs.
Hall of Fame Immortal Delvin Miller considered Russell to be the best racing official he had ever known because of his empathy with horsemen and his understanding of their issues. Members of the sport held him in high regard because he always treated others as he would expect to be treated. An excellent listener and observer, Russell meted out fair and equitable justice. He always believed that safe, competitive, honest racing is achieved by the tone set by track judges who perform "everyday work in the trenches."
Now retired and living in suburban Atlanta, Russell enjoys returning to The Red Mile each October to regale his fellow horsemen, sports writers and fans with stories of his experiences. Dean Hoffman has stated that you can ask Walter Russell about virtually any topic under the sun and you would get endless information. To quote Hoffman, "After all, he's harness racing's Google."