Dirty Jobs: Jockey
A jockey can make thousands of dollars in less than two minutes; they sport six pack abs year round, they get to ride really fast horses for a living and they can have all the luxuries they want just like a rock star!
But, don’t forget to read the fine print. . . ideally a jockey will weight under 115 pounds and have the ability to go lower when needed. Riding races can kill you; literally kill you, in just a matter of seconds. And those amazing abs are not without sacrifice. Rigorous dietary restrictions and hours in the gym or sauna make up for a torturous daily routine for many jockeys.
A jockey’s main job is to ride and win horse races. Get on the horse, go really fast, and hopefully you will win. If only it were that simple.
A jockey’s day may start around 5 a.m. with small cup of black coffee and half a piece of dry toast. He or she will head to the racetrack to breeze horses under the cover of darkness. Working horses in the morning hours is a very important part of the jockey’s job. He uses this time to get to know potential mounts and even more importantly shows his face to trainers who will be using him to ride horses in the races. The 10 percent of jockeys at the very top of the game won’t show up every morning to breeze horses, they don’t have to and it opens up more possibility for injury, but the other 90 percent needs to show up and hustle more work by proving their skill, desire and work ethic.
After breezing one to as many as seven or eight horses most jockeys will head straight to the Jocks Room. The Jocks Room is where all their riding equipment is kept and organized. Each jockey has their own locker and they spend a great deal of time in this area. The Jocks Room has a kitchen, exercise equipment, a sauna, an Equisizer, a masseuse and chiropractor as well as T.V.’s, bunks and quiet areas.
Around 10 a.m. the jockeys have to review tapes of races from the previous day. These tapes are shown when an incident warrants an inquiry or claim of foul. This can be anything from a breakdown, stumble, bump, or another jockey cutting someone off. When a jockey is cut off or bumped, he/she can claim foul on the guilty jockey. At that point the stewards review the incident from multiple angles to determine if the it cost the bothered horse a placing. If they do find interference, then the guilty horse is disqualified and placed behind the horse he bothered, even if he won and the other horse was last. Jockeys attend film review with the stewards after these incidences to potentially learn from their mistakes.
When films are over jockeys have some time before they must report for the duty of riding races all afternoon. Some of them jump in the “hot box”, or sauna, to sweat off a few pounds; some choose to jog around the racetrack to sweat off a few and the lucky ones have a snack!
Every jockey has to weigh in before every race. This determines how much “dead weight” needs to be added for them to weigh the amount assigned to them in that race. Led weights and heavier saddles are used when the jockey weighs in under the assigned amount. If a jockey is a pound or more overweight it must be declared to the betting public. This change is noted on the in-house screens, broadcasted television and announced over the P.A.
When the jockey is completely ready with silks and helmet on and whip in hand, they head out to the paddock where they meet the owners and trainers of the horse for a handshake and last minute instructions. The trainer legs up the jockey and they head to the track to warm-up before Post Time. Post Time is the actually time the starting gate opens and the race begins.
The Kentucky Derby has been dubbed the most exciting two minutes in sports. Although it’s over quickly a brightly colored mob of speeding horses dashing towards the finish line is an exhilarating sight in any level horse race. The jockey has much to do with the outcome of the race and that two minutes or less is full of split second decisions and lightning fast reflexes. They must not only pilot a horse in traffic at high speeds but they must strategize to win by reading their opponents and feeling their horses ability and comfort level. In the final moments of the race a great jockey will be nearly invisible as he or she pushes the horses neck with their hands and uses every cell of their being to urge their horse to the wire before anyone else.
Being a jockey is a great job for that small percentage or riders at the top, for the rest of the jockey population it can be frustrating and pay little. Some jockeys ride all day and then drive to a different track for night racing and then wake up to work horses the next day. Hard and exhausting work but the thrill of winning keeps these rider hooked. Figuratively starving for weeks during losing streaks and then winning a race and pocketing several thousands of dollars keeps these riders afloat.
According to apprentice jockey Cecily Evans, the biggest challenge of being a jockey is getting and maintaining enough business to get chances to ride frequently and hopefully on “live” mounts, horses that have a legitimate shot to win.
Evans put in perspective another challenge of the job, “Physically it’s a challenging job because you are supposed to be fit to control 1200lb animals at high speeds but weigh under normal body weight. It can also be especially challenging riding random horses that behave erratically and having horses break down in races. It can also be really exhausting if you are riding one track during the day, another one at night, then waking up early to work horses and doing it all again.
Being a jockey is a unique and challenging job and the extreme exhilaration of winning becomes an addiction. This adrenaline rush is what keeps riders fighting through injury time and time again and standing up against the job’s adversity, challenges and politics to ride time and time again.