Having secured his first win on the first day of his comeback, Sheldon Russell is going about getting back to business. The 34-year-old journeyman, an eight-time meet champion in Maryland, waited 296 days between rides – nearly 10 months – and isn’t about to rush things.
When live racing returns to Laurel Park Friday, Russell is named on one horse, Traininwithkristen, in a Race 6 maiden special weight. The 2-year-old Outwork filly, trained by his wife, Brittany Russell, drew the far outside in a field of eight for her career debut.
Russell is named in two races on Saturday’s card, both for his wife – 2-year-old maiden colt Freestanding in Race 3 and 3-year-old colt Sugar Gray Leonard in Race 8. Represented by agent Marty Leonard, Russell rode four races on three of four race days over Independence Day weekend at Laurel, making a triumphant return aboard Justin Horowitz’s Heldish July 1 and finishing second with Respect the Valleys’ Luminist July 4.
“Just trying to ease our way back into it. It’s just something I’d like to take step by step, day by day. Physically I feel good, so I’m sure we’ll try to pick it up,” Russell said. “Definitely for the first week I’d just like to take just one or two a day, get my bearings right, get my timing and everything right, distancing and all that. Just don’t want to make any mistakes and make sure we’re ready to go when it’s time to get busy.
“I’m thrilled to be back riding again and it really felt great to be back in the winner’s circle and kind of take the edge off,” he added. “Hopefully we can pick things up and we can get some business.”
Patience has been a virtue Russell has learned the hard way over his career, being sidelined several times for lengthy periods since arriving in Maryland in 2007, including eight months in 2015-16 with a torn labrum and fractured shoulder.
Russell calls his most recent injury “the most difficult.” He was thrown from his mount, Little Bit of That, last Sept. 9 at Laurel when she became spooked coming out to the track for her first race and reared up. Russell landed awkwardly on his right foot, toes first, and was later diagnosed with a Lisfranc injury involving both the bones and ligaments and not uncommon among professional athletes, particularly catchers in baseball who, like jockeys, rely on their feet for balance.
“All the other injuries have pretty much been bones, and this one was bones and ligaments. Like everyone says, ligaments take longer,” Russell said. “I’d say this one was probably the most difficult just because it was my foot. Mentally I felt like I was in a good place but, at the same time, I was just sitting on the couch and couldn’t really do anything. A month later we had our second kid, and I was sitting on the couch feeling pretty useless.”
Russell had surgery to stabilize the foot, followed by a lengthy recovery and rehab period, and more surgery to remove the hardware that had been put in. He got clearance to ride and began galloping horses again in April, only to suffer a broken collarbone during morning training that kept him off horses – again – until the early part of June.
“I was like a week away from making the comeback,” Russell said. “That was hard, because it was like I had got my hopes up. I was coming back. I was back feeling good, the foot was good. I went from being so close to back to square one.”
The time away did allow Russell to spend valuable time with his family including daughter Edy, who turns 3 Aug. 25, and son Rye, born Nov. 1, especially as his wife’s training career continues to skyrocket.
“That’s a positive way to look at it. That’s what me and Brittany were speaking about. If we were busy and we were riding the card, and Brittany has runners most days, we’re away from the kids,” Russell said. “In that sense, it was nice to be home supporting the kids while Brittany was out there working.
“I’m her biggest fan. I was bringing them out to the races. I was playing superdad, just waiting to heal up,” he added. “Our boy is eight months now so I got to spend his first eight months with him. We’ve got two beautiful kids, and the way it’s worked out I wouldn’t have changed anything. Being back now, it was a blessing. It’s all worked out. I’m as happy as can be.”
Russell was there when Brittany captured her first career training title at Laurel’s spring meet May 8 – Mother’s Day, no less – and again when she tied Richard Sillaman atop the Preakness Meet standings at historic Pimlico Race Course. She is one of only four females to be a leading trainer in Maryland and the only one to do it twice.
“We were there most race days and we were definitely there when it came down to the final day or two. It’s nice. I think she’s got a great team behind her. I see how the barn works and it’s just nice for her and her team to be rewarded,” Russell said. “The operation runs good. Being off, if I could have taken some of the stress off with the kids, her job is so hands-on. If my role [was] to ease the pressure at home and watch the kids so she can concentrate on the horses, then I felt like I was doing my job.”
As his comeback day approached for a second time, Russell was named on Heldish, a 2-year-old Great Notion colt bred in Maryland. They broke running in the five-furlong waiver maiden claimer and never looked back, shaking off Box N Ben at the top of the stretch and going on to win by 2 ¼ lengths.
“Obviously it was nice to get the first one out of the way. There were a lot of emotions going through my head galloping back to the winner’s circle. It [had] just been a long time, to be honest. We were like eight days away from it being 10 months. That’s probably the longest I’ve been on the sidelines,” Russell said.
“I felt great to be back in the saddle. When we were getting close Brittany was asking me which one I wanted to ride. Heldish was one that I was galloping every day,” he added. “He’s just such a cool horse. He does everything right in the morning. I’ve done some of his gate work, I’ve worked him like three times coming into the race and I was comfortable with him. I’m just happy he showed up.”
Horowitz, who races as Itsthejho, purchased Heldish for $40,000 out of Fasig-Tipton‘s Eastern Fall Yearling sale last October at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. It is his first foray into horse ownership.
“He’s become really good friends with Brittany and I, so to get Justin his first winner with the first horse he’s ever owned, that was special. Everyone was very happy in the winner’s circle,” Russell said. “The horse has been working pretty good in the morning, so the easy route would have been to pick a top five rider that was race fit and ready to go. For them to give me the opportunity, I’m very grateful. I’m very happy I could get that win for them.”
His fellow riders were so happy to have Russell back, they even greeted him with a time-honored tradition after he won.
“I didn’t see there was any need to throw ice water on me after the race, but I’ll take it. I know they were happy for me to get my first win back. I must have had nine or 10 buckets of ice water and shaving cream. It was like I won my first race again. They drowned me like a bug boy,” Russell said. “They’re a good bunch of guys. I would say pretty much everyone came and congratulated me. Even just walking through the doors the first time they were happy to see me, so that was nice.”