The sun is rising over the horizon when Sheldon Russell pulls up to the barns at Laurel Park. The 27-year-old has sustained many injuries throughout his career, but that will not stop him from riding a horse for one of the top trainers in Maryland. Even though Russell is one of the top jockeys in the state, he must constantly work on his skills. The grind never ends.
“It’s a risky job, but I love what I do. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I remember the good days and try to forget the bad,” Russell says.
An ordinary day for him starts at 5:45 a.m. After a quick breakfast, Russell arrives at the race track about 6:30 a.m. to meet with his agent Marty Leonard and horse trainers. “I like that I get the freedom to ride for different trainers and build up different relationships; everyone gives me a chance,” Russell says.
After getting a quick workout on horses that he will ride in upcoming races, which Leonard has set up for him in days prior, Russell then either stays at the race track or goes home to prepare for the starts that he has later that day. “I try to study as much as I can for what to expect, I just try to put my horses in the best possible position,” Russell says.
If he goes home, he will walk his dog, Hachi, before returning to the track ahead of the first post at 12:30 p.m. Before every race, Russell stretches to maximize his riding ability. He is also prepped for the races by his valet, Bobo Brigmon. The last race of the day usually ends at about 5:30 p.m. Afterward, Russell goes home and eats a big dinner to end his day. “We do sacrifice a lot, whether it means skipping meals or getting up early in the morning. But the rewards are good,” Russell says.
Russell has been a full-time jockey in the United States since 2007. However, Russell’s introduction to horse racing came after his family moved from the United States to England, where his father worked in the town of Newmarket under famed trainer Sir Michael Stoute, who once trained horses for the Queen of England and won several Breeders Cups. “Newmarket
. . . is known for horse racing with over 100 trainers applying their craft in the town and a race track,” Russell says.
Though he lived more than two hours away from Newmarket, on school holidays and weekends, Russell would make the trip there to learn as much as he could about horse racing, and within two weeks of working with his father, he knew that he wanted to be a professional jockey. It was around this time that he met one of the greatest influences on his career, Alfie Westwood, who would let Russell ride horses that he had exercised. “Thinking back now, it was [Westwood] that really did help me start riding,” Russell says.
Russell graduated from high school soon after and entered the British Racing School. There he learned all of the fundamentals of horse racing. After that, he worked as a trainer’s apprentice until, on his father’s advice, he returned to the States to take advantage of the greater opportunities there.
After he returned, Russell spent three months with trainer Michael Dickinson. Russell made a brief trip back to England, but quickly returned to continue working with Dickinson on his farm in northeastern Maryland. Russell also traveled around the country to different race tracks, including the Tampa Derby, where he got to work out with the eventual winner of the 2007 Kentucky Derby, Street Sense.
Dickinson then gave Russell his first five starts in the United States. When he retired, Dickinson helped Russell find an agent at Laurel Park, who would talk with trainers and owners in order to get mounts for Russell and then determine the best strategy for that particular horse to win a race.
Russell has been working with his agent for over four years now, during which time he has fulfilled one of Dickinson’s predictions: In 2012, he accumulated more earnings in races than any other jockey in the state, and found himself at the top of the field. “Sheldon is great to work with. He’s so professional and he realizes that this is his career and it’s not a job. He is in it for the long haul and is a class act,” Leonard says.
The 2012 racing season was the first and only season that Russell was injury-free. His first season ended prematurely with a back injury. He has also sustained broken ribs and torn biceps. “We take risks but it’s a great job,” Russell says.
While Russell was recovering from shoulder surgery, one of his best friends gave him the autobiography of the motivational speaker Eric Thomas, to whom Russell now regularly listens on his iPod. “I can relate to some of his motivation, he’s all about working hard, I just love listening to him,” Russell says. His cellphone case has one of Thomas’s famous quotes on it, “Allergic to Average.”
Russell is certainly not average. So far, he has had two mounts in Triple Crown races. He rode in the 2011 Preakness Stakes aboard Concealed Identity and in the 2012 Kentucky Derby aboard Done Talking.
“He’s a very intelligent rider and sometimes that really makes him dictate a lot of the races. His strategies and his quick thinking are probably some of his advantages over the jockey colony here,” says Gabby Gaudet, the racing analyst for Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course. Now that he has returned for the fall meet, his presence will be felt by other jockeys and spectators as well.
Russell has not put much thought into what he will do when he retires from being a jockey, but he does want to stay involved in the sport off the track, whether it be as an agent or training a small stable of horses.
“I enjoy what I do. I love being a jockey,” Russell says. “It’s not something [I] can do for the rest of [my] life, but while I’m doing it now, I tend to enjoy it as much as I can.”