TOUGH AS NAILS: A LOOK AT MARYLAND’S SHELDON RUSSELL
I had the chance to meet Jockey Sheldon Russell last year at a Preakness Party hosted by ABR (Americas Best Racing), and TAA (Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance). I had already done drawings of a couple of the jockeys in the Laurel/Pimlico colony, and wanted to do one of Sheldon. I had read his profile on Danonymous Racing in the “Jockey Journals” section, and I knew that he was raised in Newmarket, England. not far from where my father was born.
After waiting behind a few ladies who were clearly smitten by meeting Sheldon, I got a chance to introduce myself. When you start talking to Sheldon, you are immediately captivated by his devilish good looks, snappy dress, and the British accent. What people don’t realize, is behind that polished exterior, is a man who is as tough as nails, with the heart of a lion! I know we have all heard the quote attributed to Col. George A. Custer, “It’s not how many times a man gets knocked down, it is how many times he gets back up.” Sheldon Russel exemplifies this phrase! His list of riding related injuries looks like that of an entire NFL team. He has broken 5 vertebrae, 11 ribs, a foot, a wrist, a forearm, 2 shoulder bones, punctured both lungs, had a Hemothorax, torn tendons and ligaments in his knees and bicep, has more screws than a home improvement store, and is currently recovering from surgery from a torn RCL in the right thumb. Sheldon Russell cannot wait to get back on a horse and race, that’s what he does!
He was familiar with my drawings of the other Jockeys, and I had my “Songbird”, and “Chromie” drawings in the TAA raffle at the party. Described as one of the “good guys” around the track, he seemed more interested in talking about my artwork than about himself. We did talk some about him, and alluded to his current injury (the broken shoulder at the time). I expressed my interest in doing a drawing of him, and he liked the idea. What we came up with was a large drawing depicting him riding, and then label all his injuries like a doctor’s office poster. How could this guy possibly see humor in, and want to make light of all that he has been through? Because Sheldon Russell could not wait to get back on a horse, that’s what he does!
This week I spent some time with Sheldon and his agent Marty Leonard. We met at the beautiful Tips Restaurant at Laurel Park. Sheldon had a friend whose horse was in the last race on the card. Marty was there to see Sheldon, and also watch his other jockey Jevian Toledo, who is currently leading all jockeys in the Fall Meet. I was hoping to get ten minutes with Sheldon, but what I got was over two hours as a “fly on the wall.” Sheldon spoke from the heart, and reflected with Marty about the years of injuries, living with constant pain, the comebacks, “live” horses, owners and trainers sticking by he and Marty, family, relationships, and the trials and tribulations that the two of them had been through for now over seven years.
Sheldon was leaving the next morning for Singapore to see his father for the first time in two years. Sheldon’s father Dean was a jockey who rode in England, South Africa, and Germany. Sheldon doesn’t have much recollection of Dean riding, as he was at the end of his riding career when Sheldon became old enough to realize what his father did. Sheldon does remember though, that his father always worked around horses. Sheldon attributes his desire to be in horse racing to Dean, and said that not only is Dean his biggest idol, but has become one of his his biggest fans. “I’ve always wanted to be just like him.”
When asked about jockeys who influenced Sheldon, there was no hesitation in naming Ramon Dominguez. On April 25th of this year, the Venezuelan-born Dominguez’s induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame was announced. Early in Sheldon’s career, he spent time in New York as an apprentice jockey. He became very good friends with Ramon, who was compiling four straight years as the NYRA Top Jockey. Sheldon said that Ramon was “the best rider that I have ever seen in my time. In addition to being a great rider, Ramon was just a great person as well. If I could be anything like him, that’s what I am working towards.”
Sheldon currently sits on 1,076 wins with close to a thousand seconds and a thousand thirds, including multiple graded stakes wins, and a mount in the 2012 Kentucky Derby on Done Talking. However, none of those mounts compare to one that happened early in Sheldon’s career. In 2007, at the age of 19, Sheldon was working for Michael Dickinson. They spent some time at Palm Meadows Thoroughbred Training Center in Florida, and did some freelance riding for trainer Ian Wilkes. The normal exercise rider for Wilkes-trained Street Sense had to return home to renew his visa. Sheldon exercised the horse for two weeks, and Street Sense went on to win the Kentucky Derby.
I could have listened to Sheldon and Marty talk about horses and trainers and tracks all day. Inevitably though, when talking about Sheldon’s career, and what is defining him as a man, the conversation turns to his injuries. I asked Sheldon if there was one that was harder to come back from than the others. Maybe not physically, or medically, but mentally. He spoke of the Pimlico injury in the spring of 2015. He sustained 3 broken ribs, punctured his right lung, and required surgery for a Hemothorax. He spent 10 days in the hospital and an additional four months off. “It was the most painful, physically and mentally. It was the hardest to overcome.” After a short return, Sheldon sustained the injury that broke two bones in his shoulder. “It was another eight months off. That was three quarters of a year on the sidelines!” Sheldon couldn’t wait to return to the track though. Sheldon wanted to ride horses, that’s what he does!
Sheldon told me about a time shortly after one of the comebacks. He exercised a couple horses in the morning, and was scheduled to ride a couple horses on the afternoon race card. He said he got in Marty’s car after the morning work and just broke down. He told Marty he just didn’t think he could do it anymore. The constant post-surgery pain was more than he could bear. Like Sheldon always does, he gathered himself together, gutted it out, and won two of the races and came in second in another that afternoon. Sheldon wanted to ride the horses, that’s what he does!
Although Sheldon has achieved success shortly after each the comebacks, he attributes a lot of that to Marty getting him “live horses” to ride. I asked Marty how he keeps the owners and trainers interested in having Sheldon on their horses when he returns. He said it really isn’t that hard because everyone knows that not only is Sheldon a very talented rider, but he also has an incredible work ethic. They know he will be ready when he comes back and takes the mounts. Sheldon had anguish on his face when he told me this story. He had just come back from his shoulder injury. Marty had gotten him a mount in a race on one of the favorites. Sheldon came in second in the race. Sheldon overheard someone in the paddock say, “That horse would have won that race if the jock has been more fit.” Sheldon said can’t describe how incredibly hurt he was by the comment. He said the person that said it did not know that Sheldon had probably run more miles than any jock in the country to come back in tip-top physical condition. That’s how Sheldon gets ready to ride horses, that’s what he does!
Sheldon, Marty and I left the restaurant, and headed upstairs to the lavish and newly renovated Laurel grandstand. There, Sheldon signed my drawing for me, and we took some pictures of the three of us together. I asked Sheldon a few more of my final questions with the recorder going. We were over two hours at this point, and Sheldon needed to get down to the paddock to see his friend’s horse. As I went to stop recording, Sheldon asked me if he could say a few words about his mom. “With all the injuries I’ve had, the one person I really need to thank, and its easy for me to say, is that I have the best mom. She has been through every storm with me, and with every injury she has stuck by me.” His mom had moved here from England to be with Sheldon through the injuries, as many of them have required around-the-clock care after the hospital discharge. He continued, “without her, it would not have been so easy to make the comebacks. She is my biggest fan, and in a way, I do all this for her, you know.” She also wants Sheldon to race horses, that’s what he does!
Sheldon Russell is the strongest person that I have ever met, physically, and mentally. I don’t doubt for a minute that Sheldon will come back and be a successful jockey again. I know that Marty Leonard does not doubt for one minute that Sheldon will come back. I know that his Mom doesn’t doubt for one minute that Sheldon will come back. Above all though, I know that Sheldon Russell does not doubt it for one minute that he will come back and be a successful jockey again.
Sheldon Russell wants to be a Jockey, that’s what he does!
Stephen’s Artwork can be seen at: