Russell Drake, who managed Martin and Pam Wygod's River Edge Farm in Buellton, Calif., for 43 years, died March 16 at age 81. Retired since 2018, Drake at River Edge oversaw the stallion careers of such sires as Bertrando, Pirate's Bounty, Benchmark, and Tribal Rule.
Born in Tucumcari, N.M., Drake grew up on a ranch and moved to California in the 1950s. He first worked for California horseman Bill Foy at George and Ruth Thomas' Thomas Thoroughbred Farm in Glendora, Calif., and went with Foy to Connie Ring's Three Rings Ranch in Beaumont, Calif. There he worked with Richard Mandella before Mandella became a trainer.
Drake went on to manage Alexander and Heloise Power's farm in Julian, Calif. During those years he also helped California agent Vic Heerman prep and show horses at major sales in Kentucky and New York. During one sale Drake met oil magnate George F. Getty II and Claiborne Farm owner A.B. (Bull) Hancock II.
"Vic had a certain way of how to show a horse at a sale," Drake once recalled. "Bull Hancock was looking at a horse one day, and he said, 'Sonny, you walk that horse down a long ways and you bring it back.' So I did just what he asked me to. And when I got back and Hancock had left, Vic chewed me out because I didn't show that horse the way he wanted. Mr. Getty stepped up and he said, 'Now Vic, Russell did just what the man asked him to. Leave him alone.'"
Drake met Martin Wygod when managing the Powers' farm. Wygod hired Drake when he decided to establish River Edge in the mid-1970s. Early River Edge stallions included Bold Hitter and Pass the Glass.
Drake picked out Benchmark, a son of Alydar, as a weanling for the Wygods. The colt cost $475,000 in 1991, but proved a bargain in many ways.
A multiple grade 2 winner, Benchmark was a leading California sire at River Edge, his runners including California-bred Points Offthebench, the 2013 Eclipse champion sprinter, and millionaire Brother Derek, winner of the 2006 Santa Anita Derby (G1).
Midway through Benchmark's racing career, Wygod and Drake selected Benchmark's half sister Tranquility Lake (by Rahy), with the Wygods buying her for $250,000 as a yearling in 1996. Tranquility Lake, who won nine stakes and earned $1,662,390, later produced graded or group stakes winners After Market, Courageous Cat, and Jalil, all by Storm Cat and bred by the Wygods. Jalil sold for $9.7 million at the 2005 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
Wygod prized Drake's abilities, once listing as some of the farm manager's attributes: "His level of horse husbandry; the level of care he gives to the mares, foals, and yearlings; his knowledge of our bloodlines; his eye for conformation in horses; and his selection of mares for our respective stallions."
Other leading California sires to stand at River Edge under Drake's management included Eclipse champion Bertrando and Tribal Rule. Bertrando survived two major surgeries and earned Drake's respect for his fortitude.
"He's the most consistent horse," Drake said. "If you do the same routine with him every time, he's a real gentleman. I think sometimes you think he could almost talk. He gives you that kind of feeling about him that he just could be a real good friend. He has some of his little quirks, but most of the time he's just a real genuine horse."
Drake is survived by his wife, Darlene; his five children from his first marriage, Randy, Rusty, Rich, and Roger Drake and Robin Tinius; Darlene's children, Lisa and Mark Goodall; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.