Whilst there are countless jobs involved in the world of horse racing, none of them offer the same level of attention or potential to grab the headlines of the jockey. The most visible person in the industry, good jockeys are fought over by the best trainers and owners because they can make the difference between a horse finishing in the places and winning a race outright, which can be worth a fortune at the likes of the Cheltenham Festival.
The role itself might well be the most visible in the industry but that doesn’t mean that we see everything that goes on behind the scenes. Jockeys are amongst the hardest working members of the horse racing fraternity, needing to take part in a number of races every day in the hope that they’ll earn enough money to survive. Here we’ll have a look at what it takes to become a jockey and what they do when their riding career is over.
Commitment Is Key
In order to become a jockey, people need to be dedicated to the task at hand as well as highly motivated. It is about more than just getting onto the back of a horse and riding it. Whilst the past might well have seen people do just that, with the best ones rising to the top of the profession, modern jockeys need to be studious as well as good at what they’re doing. The first port of call is to get a Foundation Course in Racehorse Care.
Completing the Level 1 Diploma allows people to then work in a full-time basis at a Racehorse Trainer’s yard, beginning life as a Racing Groom. Having done that for a period of time, trainers will allow those that show promise to apply for a Jockey Licence Course. In order to get on that two-week course you’ll need to pass a pre-assessment test, with those that make the course becoming either an Apprentice or Conditional Jockey.
Which one you’ll be will depend on whether you favour jump or flat racing, with the former being the title of beginners in the world of flat racing and the latter the title for those that become jump racing jockeys. Of course, the reality is that the best jockeys need to demonstrate excellent horsemanship and be an extremely good rider, otherwise it will be a matter of knowing what’s involved but not how to actually do it well.
Be Light & Young
It’s an obvious factor, but jockeys have to be light. Those that race on the flat will normally weigh about eight stone, whilst those that are involved in jump racing can be slightly heavier at the nine stone seven pounds mark. Being thin or light alone isn’t enough, given that jockeys are professional athletes and must therefore be both fit and healthy. Starving yourself to be light is not the way to become a jockey.
The majority of jockeys that enter the industry do so at a relatively young age. The Apprentice Programme that gives people an in to becoming a jockey is aimed at those aged 16 to 22. The end of it sees them enter into a full-time and paid job with a Horse Racing Yard, so it is an excellent entry into the profession. That’s not to say that older people can’t do it, of course, but it is a harder path to follow.
There Are Other Paths
Technically there are no specific requirements to becoming a jockey, although those without GCSEs will need to study English and maths during their training. Anyone aged 16 or over that works 16 hours or more a week at a licensed racing stable is able to apply to become a jockey. Whilst it is one of the few sports out there in which men and woman compete against one another, most jockeys are still men at present.
That is in spite of the fact that 70% of people entering the sport are female. The reality is that only 14% of those that go on to enter the industry as jockeys are women. There’s no specific rule about the height of jockeys, but the weight limit means that most are between four foot ten and five foot six. In the end, of course, few qualifications are as useful as time spent riding horses in the saddle.
The route to becoming a professional jockey is inevitably one that is incredibly demanding. Even so, that is what most people entering into the profession will want to do with their lives, so it’s important that they know the way forward. It’s not possible to ride as a professional without gaining a licence to do so from the British Horseracing Authority, which is why gaining a Diploma is such a popular choice.
Even those that have spent their time earning appearances as an amateur jockey will still need to gain a professional racing licence after doing some training. Once you’ve turned professional, however, you’re well-placed to be able to start earning money from races. There’s no question that other sports are better placed to earn money from what they do than professional jockeys, but that doesn’t mean you won’t earn anything.
So, how much does a jockey really earn? It has been pointed out that only three flat racing jockeys earned as much from the combination of riding fees and prize money as the 200th best golfer on the PGA Tour, which was £215,000. For the average jockey, a year’s wage is more likely to be around £30,000 after tax and expenses.
That’s far from a king’s ransom, but it’s enough for those that love the sport and want to earn money riding horses to be happy with their lot. With apprentice jockeys earning about £15,000, the need to turn professional is clear for those that are doing so for money. Obviously the riders at the top-end of the industry can earn significantly more, but that is rarefied air that not everyone will get to experience during their careers.
Life After Racing
The career of a jockey is one that will often burn bright but fade away quickly. Whilst the all-time greats such as Frankie Dettori can keep riding well into their later years and the likes of Lester Piggott and Bill Shoemaker didn’t retire until they were 58, it’s more common for jump racing jockeys to call it a day at about 35. Flat racing jockeys last for about ten years more, but 45 is still a young age to need a new career.
The reality is that most former riders want to maintain their career in their chosen profession, if for no other reason than they won’t necessarily have the training to do anything else. The Jockeys Employment and Training Scheme exists specifically to point people in the right direction, career-wise when they need to hang up the saddle. JETS was setup in order to help people realise there’s life outside of racing.
It’s entirely fair to say that riders can go on to enjoy a wide-variety of new careers, with everything from becoming a tree surgeon to learning how to be a plumber on the list. Even so, most people will still want to enjoy a career within the industry and there are a wealth of options available there. It’s not uncommon for former-jockeys to become pundits for racing television, for example, though the number of jobs there is limited.
Plenty of jockeys will go on to work as trainers, with some of the most successful trainers having enjoyed careers in the saddle before taking up the job. Racecourse management is another option open to former jockeys, with many going down such a route because they have no idea what they want to do with their careers before retiring and that is a job that they feel as though they understand.
It’s become more and more common for former jockeys to head overseas to work. This is largely thanks to the proliferation of the sport in locations such as Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The owners out there are keen to learn as much as possible from those that know the sport, with riding in England seen as a top-class qualification. It also allows them to enjoy the sun and pleasant weather after a career of having to ride no matter what.
Ultimately, many jockeys are scared of retirement. Having spent a life in the saddle, often starting out as a teenage, plenty of them have no idea what to do and so they push themselves to keep going past their peak. The fact that they enjoy it so much and get a buzz from riding helps their ability to keep going, but in the end it’s a fear of what’s around the corner that causes plenty of jockeys to keep riding even when the more sensible option will have been to call it a day much sooner.