10 Things You Never Knew About Horse Jockeys
There is a lot more to horse jockeys than meets the eye. Sure, when you are watching them ride around the track in person or on TV, those winning races make it look so easy.
All the best professional sportspeople do, though.
Here, we lift the lid on horse jockeys with our list of top 10 things you never know about riders.
1. There Is No Maximum Height For A Jockey, But Being Small Helps
Jockeys can be as tall as they like, so long as they can make the allotted weight for the horses they ride.
While there is no upper limit in terms of height, taller jockeys are more likely to struggle with their weight – especially as they get older.
This prompted two-time Irish champion Flat jockey Donnacha O’Brien, who was close to 6ft (1.82m), to retire from the saddle aged just 21, and join famous father Aidan and older brother Joseph as a racehorse trainer.
The average height of horse jockeys ranges from 4ft 10in (1.47m) up to 5ft 6in (1.67m).
Size matters, then, but although small as a rule, riders also need to be strong to control their mounts.
2. The Tallest Ever Jockey Was 7ft 7in (2.31m)
Former NBA player Manute Bol tried his hand at being a jockey in a charity race in Indiana. Standing at 7ft 7in (2.31m), he is the tallest jockey on record to ever ride under rules.
In Australia, the late Stuart Brown who died aged 43 was 6ft 3in (1.87m) but still enjoyed victories in the saddle.
Patrick Sankey, a British point to point jockey standing at 6ft 7in (2.01m), won a horse race between the flags in Wales, but carried 10lbs overweight at 12st 10lbs (almost 80.75kg).
That highlights the issues taller riders face against their smaller counterparts.
The taller you are, the tougher it is to make the weight.
Jockeys of greater heights are simply at a disadvantage.
Riding ability and talent, as Donnacha O’Brien found out, can’t protect you from piling on the pounds with a certain body type.
3. There Are No Height Restrictions, But Jockeys Must Weigh A Certain Amount
What a jockey needs to weigh is determined by the conditions of the race.
There may be set weights or, if the horse is running in a handicap, the jockey’s weight is determined by the horse’s rating relative to other runners.
The top-rated horse carries the heaviest weight.
If a jockey weighs in light after a race, then they will be disqualified.
However, it’s not just themselves that go on the scales to be checked.
A horse’s saddle, tack and cloth must be carried into the weighing room too. The weight of all that equipment is added to the jockey.
Riders can be found to weigh in overweight, which isn’t seen as a problem.
There are allowances for amateur and conditional jockeys which they claim off the set weights. These start at 10lb (4.5kg) and are reduced in intervals after a jockey rides a certain number of winners.
Once they have 75 victories in the saddle, a jumps horse jockey is said to have ridden out their claim and can no longer take additional weight off their mount’s back.
On the Flat, apprentice jockeys get up to 95 winners which is more generous.
In France, female riders are allowed to claim a gender allowance and, while this might seem sexist, it gives them an advantage over their male counterparts.
Never ignore weight allowances when you bet on a horse race, as this knowledge could give you an edge.
4. Jockey Weights For Flat And Jumps Races Are Different
Flat horse jockeys must weigh considerably less than their colleagues who ride over jumps.
The weight structure for Flat races in which no obstacles are jumped can go down to 8st (51kg).
When you factor in the saddle and tack, a Flat jockey must weigh about 108lbs (49kg) in order to make bottom weight.
No horse on the Flat should be carrying more than 10st (63.5kg).
In National Hunt horse racing over jumps, however, 10st is the minimum set weight.
Topweight is rarely above 12st (76kg), although in hunter chases the amateur horse jockeys may have 12st 7lb (79kg). Heavier saddle cloths, often with lead sheets in their lining, are used for National Hunt races.
With the weight of their tack included, it’s still important for jumps jockeys to keep themselves in shape.
Size helps but, because the weights are not so extreme compared to the Flat, National Hunt jockeys could end up having longer careers – providing they stay injury free.
5. Jockeys Keep Less Than 10 Percent Of Winnings From A Race
After risking life and limb partnering their mounts in a race, horse jockeys aren’t exactly well compensated for doing the steering.
In jumps races, which after all are riskier than running on the Flat, the rider receives between 8-9 percent of the prize money.
You are scarcely better off than a racehorse trainer, with the owners pocketing the lion’s share at around 80 percent of winnings.
Many are kind enough to give the handlers, jockeys and grooms a bonus though.
On the Flat, the percentage is even lower for horse jockeys with less than 7 percent on average going to the winning rider.
With placed prize money, regardless of the code, the rider gets a measly 3.5 percent. No wonder they try so hard to get the horses to win!
There are also expenses, agent’s fees and many other deductions taken from horse jockeys.
They are not as well off as you might think, then, and the risk of injury outweighs the rewards as riders don’t earn when they are facing a spell on the sidelines.
6. A Jockey’s Use Of The Whip Has Strict Rules And Limits
This is a controversial topic, but horse racing authorities have always taken on board concerns from equine welfare charities with regards to a horse jockey using the whip.
There are clear rules to follow and severe punishments for any rider who is found to have broken them.
In a Flat race, a jockey may not use the foam padded, air cushioned whip made of synthetic material more than seven times.
If they do, then they will incur either a fine and/or a suspension for excessive use. Stewards also look at the force a jockey punts into their use of the whip.
Over jumps, the maximum limit is eight times.
The correct place to use the whip is on a racehorse’s hind quarters, never on its flanks.
If a horse does not respond to the whip, one of the expressed purposes for using it, then a jockey must consider the wellbeing of their mount.
7. Horse Jockeys Aren’t Allowed To Place Bets
Racing authorities take a very dim view of horse jockeys placing bets and it is seen as major breach of the rules.
Lengthy bans can be handed out, with Hayley Turner suspended for three months after she was found betting while still holding a licence to ride.
That’s a mild punishment by comparison.
In Australia, there is a mandatory two-year ban for any horse jockey found to breach betting rules.
This acts as a major deterrent and the authorities Down Under aren’t afraid to be even more severe than that with punishments.
Racing NSW stewards banned Adam Hyeronimus for three years when they found him guilty of breaking the rules. He placed two A$500 bets on horses he rode, so backing himself backfired.
Authorities have to be tough on this because horse jockeys have inside information.
8. Hundreds Of Jockeys Have Died Or Suffered Life-Changing Injuries As A Result Of Horse Racing
Horse racing is a dangerous sport and, while fatalities are thankfully few and far between, life-changing injuries and deaths do happen.
All horse jockeys are required to wear protective headgear, but more than 100 riders in North America have died as a result of injuries in races since 1950.
Studies do show that the death rates of jockeys in California have decreased significantly after 1980.
While much has been done in countries where horse racing is popular, the risk to both equine and human athletes cannot be reduced entirely.
As with any sport, there is always a chance of sustaining injuries.
Thin body protectors, which horse jockeys can claim as part of their equipment, have become more common in race riding in recent years to protect the spine.
9. You Won’t See Many Riders Over The Age Of 40
As it becomes more difficult to control their weight as they get older, many horse jockeys call time on their careers in the saddle after the age of 40.
It’s rare for riders to go on past 50, although there are notable exceptions.
Legendary British Flat jockey Lester Piggott came out of retirement aged 54. Like American rider Bill Shoemaker, he partnered his final winner in the saddle at 58 years old.
That’s beyond most jockeys, however, with the late 30s or early 40s the age at which most call time on their careers.
US Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, Japan’s Yutaka Take, and Qipco Hall of Famer Frankie Dettori are all still getting a leg up into their 50s.
10. Gender Equality Has A Long Way To Go
Horse racing is by and large dominated by men.
There are notable exceptions of course, and plenty has been done to spotlight female jockeys in recent years.
From Lizzie Kelly’s breakthrough Grade 1 ride on Tea For Two at Kempton, through to Bryony Frost winning a top race at the Cheltenham Festival, Holly Doyle’s record breakers in Britain and Rachael Blackmore making history in 2021 as the first-ever female winner of the Grand National – there is plenty to inspire.
However, many of these big race victories are notable because they are firsts for women.
There are still so few female jockeys.
When female jockeys have been asked, they often say they feel discriminated against.
With such a dominant male presence with owners, trainers and weighing room colleagues all around them, they feel afraid to speak out against harassment or bullying.
Horse racing is behind the curve in terms of equal opportunities.