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Score at Halftime swaps owners, earns spot in horse history

By Paul Huggins
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2395

PRICEVILLE — Friends of Larry Cruse didn't know whether to console him or congratulate him at the end of World Celebration on Saturday night.

Most probably settled for the easiest move and threw some jabs at him for missing out on what would have been the ultimate achievement in the racking horse industry: owning the world grand champion.

The horse that won the breed's top title, Score at Halftime, belonged to Cruse up until two weeks ago. He sold it to Denny Russell, whose name will forever be etched in the list of world grand champions.

"I kind of regret it in a way, but I was still very proud," Cruse said Sunday from his home in Morganton, Ga.

Predictable victory

Cruse said he won't second-guess himself because horse trading like that is part of the business, and he was sure Score would win even when he sold it.

Russell, a resident of Smithfield, N.C., said he had been impressed with the 6-year-old Score for years, as the bay-colored stallion had won the 2-, 3- and 4-year-old world grand championships.

But what truly made Score valuable was his trainer, Kenny Ailshie.

"He's like (racecar driver Dale) Earnhardt," Russell said. "That's why we got him out there. He knows how to win."

Though both Russell and Cruse are avid horsemen, Cruse is relatively new to the racking horse circuit, having competed at World Celebration for about five years. Russell — once a stable boy for Ailshie — has attended all 35 World Celebrations.

Right horse, trainer, time

Russell said he began to aim seriously for the title several years ago and has learned to appreciate what a special accomplishment it is.

"We just had the right horse and the right trainer at the right time," he said. "We got close with Unreal (in 2004). I still think Unreal is the best racking horse I ever saw, and Jamie (Lawrence) did a great job training him, but it just didn't happen for us. So I know how hard it is to win this."

Although it was Russell's first time in the winner's circle, Ailshie seems to be making a permanent home there.

This was his seventh world grand championship. He rode Oil Stock to the top in 1986 and '87, Oil Stock's Delight in 1991 and '92, The Finalizer in 1998 and Unreal in 2002.

The Greeneville, Tenn., trainer was his usual humble self following a big win, crediting the horse for having the natural talent and will to win.

Father was champ

"I've just liked him since he was a colt," he said, noting that Score's father was a world grand champion walking horse, Pusher's Big Score.

As for how Score compares to his other champions, Ailshie said each horse has talent but they're all different. He wouldn't say one was better than another.

Score, which earned $2,500 and the promise of lucrative stud fees, beat out a field of seven horses.

Second place went to The Steppin' Wolf, trained by Josh Watts for Herb Weiler Jr. of Vandalia, Ohio. If Only, trained by Casey Wright for Chris and Denise Walker of Monterey, Tenn., was third for the second straight year.

It finished second in 2004 and '03.

Cruse didn't go away empty-handed. His horse Motown Sensation won the 4-year-old world grand championship.

Buyer moved fast

As for what prompted him to sell Score so close to the championship, Cruse said he simply needed to clear some of his stable inventory, but Russell surprised him by how quickly he jumped at the buy.

"I offered to sell, and he took me up on it right away. He kind of caught me off guard, to tell you the truth," Cruse said. "But I'm still proud for him and for Kenny. I guess for me it's almost just as good."

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