ItsTheJHo's Heldish, a son of Great Notion bred in Maryland by R. Larry Johnson and trained by Russell's wife, Brittany Russell, completed five furlongs in :58.77 over a fast main track to win the maiden claiming event for 2-year-olds by 2 1/4 lengths as the 4-5 favorite.
"To be fair, I feel pretty good. We knew going in today that he was a pretty cool horse. He's been one of my daily gallops every morning. I'm very comfortable with him. You could see in the post parade, he's as cool as can be," Russell said. "I want to say good job to Eric Camacho who gets on him every other day. He's always been all class. He was a great first ride back."
It was the first race back for Russell, 34, since last Sept. 9 at Laurel when another 2-year-old Maryland-bred making its career debut, filly Little Bit of That, got spooked and reared heading to the track, unseating the rider, who had won earlier that day on 3-year-old gelding Arrio.
Russell landed on his right foot, toes first, and was later diagnosed with a Lisfranc injury, involving both the bones and ligaments in the middle part of the foot. Leading all Maryland jockeys in purse earnings and ranked second in wins when he went down, Russell underwent successful surgery later that month.
A long recovery and rehabilitation followed, including the removal of hardware inserted to stabilize the foot, and Russell was finally able to get back on horses in April. He was about a week away from returning to the races when he suffered another setback, breaking his collarbone during morning training. Sidelined several more weeks, Russell was back on horses again in June.
"Timewise, it's the longest I've been off and I would say probably the toughest. Not being able to walk for four months was very hard," Russell said. "We did three months of rehab and ended up taking the screws and plates out of the foot. There were times when I didn't think it was going to get better, but as we all know if you give it enough time everything heals. Just fortunate enough to be back in the saddle today."
Represented by agent Marty Leonard, Russell has won six of his eight individual meet riding titles in Maryland at Laurel and was the state's overall champion in 2011. He has won more than 1,500 races and $43 million in purses since 2007 having overcome several injuries over the course of his career.
During his recovery, Russell kept busy spending quality time with his wife and children—daughter Edy, who turns 3 Aug. 25, and son Rye, born last Nov. 1. He was by his wife's side when she won Laurel's spring stand as well as the subsequent Preakness Meet at historic Pimlico Race Course. Ironically, it was Little Bit of That's victory on Mother's Day, May 8, which clinched her first career meet championship.
Russell has no mounts Saturday but is named again in two of nine races Sunday at Laurel, aboard Anthony Farrior-trained Jackie the Joker in race 1, a 1 1/16-mile claiming event on the main track, and Smart Eulee for trainer Tim Keefe in race 2, a maiden claimer sprinting 5 1/2 furlongs over the Kelso turf course.
"I've got to say a huge thank you to Justin (Horowitz), one of the (Heldish) owners, for trusting in me. He knows the horse has been working really good in the mornings," Russell said. "It would be an easy out to put one of the top jocks on him, but he gave me that opportunity and I'll forever be grateful."