Horse Whispering & Hurdles: The Secret Life of Jockeys

Horseracing is one of the oldest and most storied sports in the world. Archaeologists have found records of horseracing at the earliest Olympic Games, held back in 680BC. Today, events like the Kentucky Derby and Cheltenham Festival regularly draw in crowds over 150,000. In the latter example, DraftKings Sportsbook has special offers on this massive event.

With so much interest from fans, events are held around the world. This means stables and owners also tend to span continents, while prize purses continue to grow; in 2022, the Jockey Club of Britain plans to dole out almost $80 million in prize money.

For context, the Jockey Club covers some of the most prestigious races in the UK. First, the group owns Aintree, where the Grand National is held each year. They also own the Cheltenham Festival grounds, which also hosts some of the most-watched steeplechases of the year

In fact, the events are so big for local and international racing fans that sportsbooks will also payout for those who can predict winners. Many also offer deals, such as the Cheltenham bets mentioned above, which can be used on a range of different events.

With so much emphasis on the competition, fans and punters will need to pore over analysis that covers the top horses. Oftentimes, these breakdowns also provide critical insight into specific jockeys. Still, the overarching emphasis remains on the horse

Even the most qualified jockeys will only nab around 10% of a winning purse—and, despite being so closely attached to huge victories that can include m payouts, most jockeys pull in around $40,000 a year.

So, what’s it like being a high-octane horse whisperer? And why aren’t jockeys credited more for their work on the tracks?

A Political Game

Jockeys are responsible for guiding a horse to victory—but before they can find a horse, they must first excel at a semi-political game. Horseracing involves owners, trainers, and stables. Owners pay for horses, their training, and the stable where they’re housed. A trainer is responsible for raising a horse and instilling a competitive technique.

A jockey comes after these elements. They rely on an agent and their performance at a racetrack to endear them to a new owner-trainer duo. It’s rare that a new jockey will be able to choose which horses they ride. Instead, they’ll need to match the style and rhythm of that horse to hopefully ensure a win.

Again, this often comes down to an agent, who will be responsible for connecting a jockey to a specific horse and its owner-trainer group. A jockey must be versatile, as well as amenable to the hopes and plans of the owner and trainer—especially those at the start of their career.

A Strange List of Requirements

First and foremost, a jockey must be comfortable around horses. They must be able to gauge a horse’s mood, style, and skillset—then be able to complement this with their own experience and expertise. This is one of the most unique aspects of horse riding—it involves trust between two beings that can’t communicate directly.

Aside from the ability to connect with a horse, jockeys must be physically fit. This doesn’t just come down to strength and endurance, but the lesser-known aspects of athletic prowess. These include eyesight and split-second decision-making during live races.

A jockey will need to make immediate adjustments for themselves, while also guiding a horse. Something as small as a twitch of the hand can spell disaster for the one holding the reigns, which means they also need to be calm under pressure.

The Rise of Female Jockeys

There’s another aspect of a jockey’s career that not many people understand: jockeys can be women. Though the horses are divided based on gender, category, and other aspects, jockeys aren’t separated into male and female groups.

Back in 1975, Australian jockey Pam O’Neill became the first official registered female jockey. Since then, more women have begun to pursue careers as jockeys.  In 2012, Katie Walsh became the first female jockey to finish in a Top Three position at the Grand National in Liverpool, England.

The most successful female jockey of all time is Hayley Turner, who nabbed over 1,500 wins throughout her career. Though she’s since retired, Turner still holds the record for the most flat races completed in a single year in the UK (2008), during which time she posted 100 appearances.

Despite the improved performance of female jockeys, there hasn’t been a massive uptick in the number of competitors. However, it’s also important to note that many female horseracing enthusiasts have since become successful owners and trainers.

Layered Pay & Potential Sponsorships

Clearly, the demands on jockeys are extensive. They have to balance physical fitness, mental stress, and competitive drive with their relationship to a horse that weighs up to 900 pounds. Without their guidance, no horse would pass the finish line. So, why are jockeys paid only 10% of winnings?

The short answer is that horseracing is an incredibly expensive business. Owners can expect to shell out tens of millions for well-bred colts, and then an exorbitant amount on top of that to find the horse a quality shelter and trainer for its first two years.

Though a horse’s ‘hey day’ comes around its third birthday, owners will need to shell out cash for years before the horse can even provide a return on investment. So, the margins are thin for jockeys because the chance of success for top racehorses is so slim.

Most jockeys work on a per-race basis. This means they stick to a single racetrack where they’ll receive around $150 to $250 per race, depending on race type. A full day will see a successful jockey bring home around $1,300… but they’ll then need to pay their agent, their union, and then their valet. This usually gobbles up around 25% of what they made that day.

But successful jockeys that have strong relationships with various owners and trainers will often find themselves with a regular amount of work. Even better, bigger names can also command lucrative sponsorship deals. These sponsorships are independent of their contracts with owner groups, which means they keep almost 100% of the earnings.