The following was written by Frank Vespe and appeared in The Racing Biz. Sheldon Russell was the leading rider at Colonial Downs in 2011 and competed at the New Kent track’s “Racing Revival” season in 2019.
It hasn’t exactly been the year that jockey Sheldon Russell envisioned.
The pandemic cost him – and every other rider – more than two months of racing action. Then in July he broke his wrist in a gate mishap at Delaware Park, which robbed him of another 10 weeks.
But perhaps things are turning around for the 33-year-old. For the first time since 2011, he’ll have a mount in the Preakness, aboard the Steve Asmussen trainee Excession.
“I’m really happy,” Russell said Saturday morning on Off to the Races Radio. “I’m really looking forward to it, and like most jockeys in those big races, just praying for a nice, clean trip, and a little bit of luck.”
Russell’s prior Preakness mount, in 2011, came aboard Concealed Identity, who was trained by the late Eddie Gaudet. He finished tenth in a race won by Shackleford, who spoiled Animal Kingdom’s bid for a second Triple Crown race.
Concealed Identity went off at 25-1 that day. Despite the Hall of Fame trainer, Excession might be even longer. The Union Rags colt has just a single win from nine career starts and hasn’t raced since March, when he finished second, beaten less than length by Nadal, in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Excession went off at 82-1 that day.
“He needed some time after the Rebel,” Asmussen said of Excession. “He’s been working well recently. His race against Nadal was very impressive. Just a weird year that has allowed him to take a break and come back” and still make a Triple Crown race.
That works out to be just fine with Russell, whose wife Brittany is a trainer based at Laurel Park. The rider, who was born in Louisiana but mostly raised in England, had a Kentucky Derby mount, with Done Talking, in 2012. But it’s been a long time between drinks since then.
Two months ago it would have been hard to envision this particular outcome. He was leading the Laurel Park summer meet with 20 wins when he was injured July 16 at Delaware Park. He didn’t make another start until September 24.
“I was riding a horse at Delaware, and just one of those things, I just fell off the wrong way, landed on my hand,” Russell recalled. “It wasn’t a severe break. I took the much-needed time off that I needed to to heal, and if anything, took maybe a couple of weeks extra, just to make sure it was good and I was ready to go.”
It was yet another detour in a career that’s seen plenty of them. He suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb in 2016; torn labrum and fractured shoulder in a November 2015 training accident; broken ribs (2015, 2010), punctured lung (2015), broken foot (2013), broken wrist (2008) and fractured vertebrae (2007, 2008). In the toughest of those years, 2016, Russell made just 138 starts.
At the same time, however, Russell has, when healthy, established himself among the top ranks of Maryland and Mid-Atlantic riders. He’s won four graded stakes in his career and ridden such hard-hitting runners as Eighttofasttocatch, Rahystrada, and Ah Day, among others.
And now he’ll get another crack at the Preakness, aboard a horse he hasn’t ridden yet and just a dozen or so starts into his latest comeback.
SHELDON RUSSELL INTERVIEWhttps://omny.fm/shows/espn-950-all-access/9-26-2020-espn-richmond-all-access/embed?t=20m29s
“I’m sure I’ll stop by, maybe early next week and meet the team and, you know, hopefully speak with Steve, and… I’ll leave it up to them,” Russell said. “I’ll just take it day by day. I won’t really change anything in my schedule. I’m just trying ride the races up until then, as best as I could, and you know, hopefully we can get some good results.”
Of course, good results this week are nice. A good result in the Grade 1, $1 million Preakness would be something else altogether.
“Destiny — a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel knowing that coming back, I’d be running in the Preakness,” Russell said. “I couldn’t be happier than what I am right now… You know, it’s a crazy game and just happy that I’m all geared up and I’m back doing what I love.”