Jockey Journals — Sheldon Russell

Jockey Journals

Sheldon Russell

February 28, 2015

Entering this weekend, Sheldon Russell stands just two wins away from a career milestone – his 1,000th win. Around the track, Russell has built a reputation for truly being “one of the good guys,” along with being one of the best riders in the Mid-Atlantic, when he’s been healthy. In this edition of Jockey Journals, Russell tells us about his long, and sometimes difficult, journey. He also talks about some of his racing mentors, his proudest accomplishments and what he’d like to achieve next. 

I was born in Bossier City, Louisiana, but spent only a few months there before my mom and dad moved back to South Africa. I like to consider myself English because most of my memories growing up were in England. I would have to say my dad was my biggest influence and the main reason why I got involved in horse racing. He too was a jockey in South Africa, England and Germany, but he could never get a visa to ride in America.

I remember jumping on a coach bus and making the two hour journey every other weekend to visit my dad in Newmarket. I was supposed to return back to London on Sunday nights but that never happened. I would go to work with him most Mondays and catch the coach back after work. We laugh about it now, but my mom used to get so mad at me. We used every excuse in the book for Monday sick notes to my teachers.

Russell gives the thumbs up after a ride at Pimlico last year. He has earned a reputation of being one of the friendliest and most approachable jockeys in racing. Photo by Dan Tordjman
Russell gives a thumbs up after a race at Pimlico. He has earned a reputation of being one of the friendliest and most approachable jockeys in racing.
Photo by Dan Tordjman

At that time, he was working as an assistant trainer for Sir Michael Stoute. Once I finished high school I moved up to Newmarket full time to live with my dad. My dad got me my first job working for trainer Willie Musson and introduced me to Alfie Westwood, who was going to help teach me how to ride. Alfie was a retired jockey working for Musson and straight away he took me under his wing.

I remember Alfie would make me meet him at the top of the gallops, and let me ride his horse back to the barn. Teaching me as we walked home, he was the best. Those were great days. He would give me a leg up and pass me over his helmet – which didn’t fit at the time – and lead me home. We still talk to this day, and I’m forever grateful for everything he has done for me.

Once I learned the basics and was able to ride on my own, I attended the British racing school for three months. It was there where they teach you everything you need to know about the horse racing industry. I really enjoyed my time at the school and knew that once I graduated I wanted to become a jockey. After having about 65 rides in England, I decided to come to America for three months and get some experience for the winter.

I began working for Michael W. Dickinson at Tapeta Farm in Maryland. After my three months were up, he sat me down and told me to come back and that I should try to ride races over here. He promised to help me get started and would give me my first five rides. He said that if I didn’t like it I could return home. So, I returned back to England, repacked the suitcases, said my goodbyes and returned to the farm.

Michael  was a huge influence in my career, very much like a father figure to me. He kept his promise and gave me my first five rides and helped me get my first agent, Tracy Campola. Honestly, looking back on my career, I have to give MWD all the credit for my success. He changed my life for the best and if he never sat me down that night I don’t think I would be here right now, or just shy of 1,000 winners.

Russell shared one of his biggest recent victories with friend and British trainer Niall Saville, for whom he captured the Knickerbocker Stakes-G3 at Belmont aboard Legendary last October. Russell's other graded stakes score include the 2009 Toboggan-G3 on Ah Day and the 2012 Illinois Derby-G3 aboard Done Talking, who Russell also rode in the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Dan Tordjman
Russell shared one of his biggest recent victories with friend and British trainer Niall Saville, for whom he captured the Knickerbocker Stakes-G3 at Belmont aboard Legendary last October. Russell’s other graded stakes score include the 2009 Toboggan-G3 on Ah Day and the 2012 Illinois Derby-G3 aboard Done Talking, who Russell also rode in the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Dan Tordjman

I like to stay fit. On my dark days I enjoy going swimming or, if it’s nice outside, I’ll go for a long run. I have competed in several sprint Triathlons in the last two years. It’s a great way to take your mind off racing for a bit and trainer Tim Keefe does them with me, so I have good company.

Russell, pictured on Preakness weekend 2014, said winning a major stakes in Maryland, like the Preakness, is on his to-do list. He also hopes for another opportunity to get back to the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Dan Tordjman
Russell, pictured on Preakness weekend 2014, said winning a major stakes in Maryland, like the Preakness, is on his to-do list. He also hopes for another opportunity to get back to the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Dan Tordjman

I try and lead a healthy lifestyle, so every day before the races I will have my Herbalife protein shake and that will get me through my races. I might have a few cheeky gummy bears in between races if we are having a long day at the office.

It’s taken a lot of broken bones(17) to make it this far, and a lot of miles. I just hope to continue to improve and ride winners. I have always wanted to ride 200+ winners in a year and the one year I didn’t get injured (2011) I managed 195 wins. So, that’s a little goal.

I’m very happy with the start of the year. My agent Marty Leonard is doing a fantastic job. I am thankful for all the trips up and down the East Coast and the hard work he puts in. We are very good friends on and off the track, which makes things even better.

I’m happy to be back on track and healthy again, I would love to finish top three in the Maryland rider standings year-round for 2015.

This Jockey Journal was written by Sheldon Russell. It was lightly edited for clarity. We thank Russell for taking the time to share his story on Jockey Journals. You can also follow him on Twitter @SheldonRussell1.

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