If you watch famous jockeys being feted by their peers and the horse racing & sporting world alike, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing it’s a glamorous gig. Sure, for those on top of the pile, sharp suits, fancy cars, parties and adulation come with the territory. Yet in reality, the life of a jockey is a difficult one and only those with a true love of the sport need apply.
Below, we look at some of the issues faced by jockeys including meagre earnings, deprivation and injury.
When you see top jockeys such as A P McCoy, Sam Twiston-Davies, Frankie Dettori and Ruby Walsh win big races on television; it’s easy to assume that race jockeys do pretty well financially. For example, top class jockey Jamie Spencer was able to retire at the age of 34 and is seemingly in good shape financially.
For the top jockeys, life is pretty good; they do what they love and get paid handsomely for it. They get ferried around the world and praised by racing lovers wherever they go.
Yet for the majority of jockeys in the UK and around the world, it’s a tough life as they earn relatively little. If you’re not in the leading pack, making ends meet as a jockey is a lot harder than you might think.
Using figures taken from 2014, I found that flat jockeys earn £118.29 a ride while jump jockeys get £161.51. For well known jockeys, it is normal to get several rides a day; for lesser known riders, they are lucky to get a single ride and often travel to a meet in the hope of getting some work for the day.
If a horse is pulled out at the last minute by the trainer, jockeys in the UK receive no compensation. We outline how much jockeys make in prize money in another article but we can tell you they typically receive less than 6% of the total prize fund in Jump races and less than 4.5% of the fund in Flat races. Therefore, they need to win or place in a reasonably big event consistently in order to earn a good living.
Outside of the top 10 earners, the median annual earnings for a UK jockey is approximately £20,000. Given the sacrifices they make coupled with the dangers they face, this really is small beer.
Imagine travelling 50 miles in order to do some ‘ride work’; this means educating horses for a Trainer without pay in the hope of receiving a ride or two in the future. Incidentally, jockeys must pay 10% of his fee to the agent who booked the ride, 10% to the valet that looks after his kit; then there is the small matter of insurance payments. As you can imagine, finding insurance as a jockey is hard work!
As you are aware, horses must carry a set amount of weight in a race; the exact amount depends on the event. All jockeys need to weigh in before a race; they step on a digital scale with their kit (including the saddle) to ensure they are the correct weight. After the race, the jockey once again has to weigh in wearing his full equipment to ensure the horse carried the correct weight.
Trainers prefer jockeys to be as close to the allocated weight as possible as it’s easier for the horse to run with fewer lead weights (used to make up the difference between the jockey’s weight and race weight).
Jockeys in National Hunt races weigh more than Flat race jockeys as Jump horses tend to carry more weight. While some jockeys often weigh as little as 8 stone, Jump jockeys may weigh as much as 10 stone. In some Flat races, the combined weight of jockey and saddle could be as little as 50 kilos or 7 stone 12 pounds.
Jockeys have different methods of making weight; use of diuretics was common but they have now been banned. Below, we look at various ways in which jockeys trim down starting with a sensible diet and exercise plan before moving on to methods I would not recommend!
Diet & Exercise
In certain cases, jockeys eat as little as 1,000 calories a day which seems like borderline starvation when compared to the recommended daily caloric intake for adults (2,000 to 2,500; depending on size and weight obviously). As a result, jockeys rely on nutritious low calorie meals such as the ones listed on the Great British Racing website. The page includes several low calorie meals with well known jockeys offering their recipes.
Former jockey Neil Hannity outlined his battle with weight control during his days in the saddle. He was just 9 stone 7 pounds as a 17 year old when he went to England to become a jockey and maintaining the weight was easy as a teen. However, once he reached the age of 20, he found it harder to maintain the weight and resorted to the more dangerous weight control methods we outline below.
With the aid of highly respected academic George Wilson, Hannity has found that eating healthy meals several times a day is the best way to control his weight. He now eats 6 times a day with typical fare including green tea, oats, yoghurt, bananas, tuna, cottage cheese, chicken, fish and protein shakes.
Barry Geraghty and Sam Waley-Cohen state their usual exercise regime includes circuit training and TRX training; kettlebells are also a favourite of jockeys as they provide an intense workout which trains the entire body.
Geraghty says that if he needs to lose 8-10 pounds for a race; he will begin the process 4 days before the event. He generally likes to do 2 runs of several miles a day. He also says if he has a race at 1pm and gets to the location at 10am, he will take a run around the course before the races. For instance, when he was booked at Cheltenham, he was having a 3 mile run each day before riding 6 horses!
Extreme Weight Loss
In the jockey world, using extreme measures to make weight is known as ‘wasting’.
For most people, going into a sauna is all about relaxation but for jockeys, it is a key weapon in their constant battle against the scales. It is not unusual for a jockey to spend 3 agonising hours in a sauna; an alternative is to have very hot baths for up to 2 hours; some have even invested in ‘sweat suits’.
Neil Hannity was pretty candid about the things he used to do in order to make weight for races. ‘Flipping’ involved consuming a prawn curry and downing a pint of Coke; this resulted in a huge amount of gas in your stomach. Then he would clean his hands, place 2 fingers down his throat and force himself to throw up. After ‘flipping’, he could expect to lose 1 pound of weight.
There have also been reports of a ‘heaving bowl’ placed in the jockey’s room. As the name suggests, it is a large bowl where jockeys regularly throw up in order to make weight requirements.
Some of the methods used to lose weight are tantamount to torture and eventually, the body and mind will quit. In the United States, a retired jockey named Randy Romero now needs kidney and liver transplants due to the dangerous weight loss practices he performed during his racing days. Famed 19th century jockey Fred Archer took his own life after reportedly suffering from delirium caused by trying to trim down his 5ft 10 inch frame; he was just 29 years old.
Other potential health risks include blood disorders, osteoporosis in later life, fainting spells, abnormal heart rhythms, muscle weakness, kidney & nerve damage and lacerated stomachs.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the PJA dismisses allegations of ‘wasting’. Back in 2008, the Chief Executive of the Association, Josh Apiafi, said the notion of jockeys spending 3 hours in a sauna was ‘ridiculous’ and claimed the process of ‘flipping’ was confined to the ‘olden days’.
Jump jockeys are mainly in the line of fire when it comes to being seriously hurt. When you are riding a giant horse at 35-40 miles per hour in a field of 20+ horses and trying to jump over huge hurdles, bad things can happen!
Take the incomparable Tony McCoy for example; in an interview in November 2010, he told the reporter he had fallen off his horse on 8 occasions within the last 2 weeks. Even by that stage in his career he had broken almost every bone in his body; on one occasion, he received a kick from another horse after he had fallen from his mount. As well as the danger from the fall itself, jockeys have to contend with dozens of trampling hooves; over the course of hundreds if not thousands of races, it is almost inevitable that you will eventually fall foul of an errant hoof.
Incidentally, sweet tea is apparently a very effective remedy for jockeys after a heavy fall; remember, they often have to recover in time for a race less than an hour later. Although fatalities are relatively rare in the UK and Ireland, they do happen occasionally. A dozen jockeys have died since 1980 on British racecourses; and before you make the mistake of thinking Flat jockeys are safe; 4 of those fatalities happened on the Flat.
Then there is the sadness of knowing your mount has died; from 2007-2013, 25 horses ridden by McCoy died either during the race or soon afterwards.
Who would be a jockey? You need to absolutely love horses and the feeling of riding one over the ground; you must be prepared to earn a pittance at the start of your career and hope to be one of the successful jockeys that manage to ride in the big events. You must live a Spartan lifestyle in order to keep your weight in check and occasionally, extreme measures come into play (despite the denials by the PJA).
Finally, you must be aware of the risks and brave enough to take on the challenge of handling a huge animal in the knowledge that severe injury (or worse) is a distinct possibility. If you can handle all of the above, it’s time to start training!